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Blooms of Diversity

Expanding academia's scope

Blooms of Diversity

On the first day of Hernan Ramirez’s field research into the workplace culture of immigrant gardeners, an enraged Westwood homeowner stormed from his house, unleashed a litany of expletives and threatened to sue.

His target was the gardener who, while trimming ivy at the house, accidentally cut a water hose, shutting off the air conditioning.

“The man came out of the house and went ballistic,” recounted Ramirez, a third-year doctoral student in sociology at USC College. “I was nervous, but the worker took it in stride.”

Ramirez’s research into Mexican immigrant gardeners in Los Angeles comes directly from his own experience. His father, Antipatro, migrated from Mexico and has been a gardener — jardinero — in the Los Angeles area for 36 years.

“This is my life story,” said Ramirez on a recent Sunday, while helping cultivate the English primroses and gardenias at his parents’ South Gate home. “This is my father’s life story. As the son of a Mexican immigrant gardener, it’s a subject I can put my heart into.”

Ramirez’s research is just one example of how a diverse faculty and student body expands scholarship by bringing new understanding to traditionally unexplored areas.

“The concepts that scholars develop are influenced not only by our academic training, but by our own particular biographies — by who we are,” said Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, professor of sociology and Ramirez’s thesis adviser.

“If research in sociology were to be done only by a very homogenous group ... it would be more difficult to have research projects that look into topics like gender and immigration,” she said, “or projects that really interrogate questions of race and gender.”

Peter Starr, dean of the College, concurs, adding that, in an ideal world, to properly mentor students and nurture new scholars, the faculty would mirror the diversity of the student body.

“In some fields, the lack of diversity is a vicious cycle,” Starr said. “Students who are talented in a field go to classes and they do not see people who look like themselves. And they say, ‘Hmm, why is that? Maybe people like me are not welcome in this field.’ It makes them much less likely to get into the field.”

Elena Pierpaoli, associate professor of physics and astronomy, said this problem is particularly prevalent with women in the sciences.

“Women in physics, especially, are very much underrepresented,” Pierpaoli said. “If you don’t have female scientists, then you’re discouraging more participation by women. Essentially, you’re giving up on half of your student population.

“The best female students in the sciences often end up doing something else,” she added, “when they could possibly have been the best researchers in the field.”

In addition to role modeling, another significant benefit of a diverse faculty is enriched research and scholarship.

For example, when Hondagneu-Sotelo began her studies 20 years ago, few were conducting extensive research on undocumented immigration, settlement and employment of Latinas.

“I consider myself Latina; my mother is from Chile,” said Hondagneu-Sotelo, who is fluent in Spanish. “The whole topic of immigration, work and gender interests me because my mother came here as a domestic worker.

“In the mid-80s, Mexican immigration was not a popular research topic in sociology,” she added. “It was not seen as a legitimate field of study, but then add gender to it and it was seen as illegitimate or, at best, innovative.”

Despite obstacles, she persevered.

Hondagneu-Sotelo is an author and co-editor of several books on immigration and Latinas in the workplace. She is best known for the prize-winning Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence (University of California Press, 2001). Her latest, Religion and Social Justice for Immigrants (Rutgers University Press, 2007), discusses how religion defines the immigrant fight for equality in human rights, culture and economics.

It is natural for one to be drawn to subjects related to one’s own personal history.

Take for example 21-year-old sophomore Michael J.W. Yun, who is taking a political science course in the College’s Team Research Communities program, where undergraduates work with a professor on yearlong research projects.

Yun, who was born and raised in South Korea, began attending school as an international student in Southern California in seventh grade. Each summer, he returned home to Seoul. When his family immigrated to the United States late last year and settled in San Jose, he became a permanent resident.

Fluent in Korean, English, French and Chinese, Yun chose to study the residents of Monterey Park, which is largely Asian-American, and Chino Hills, which is predominantly white.

In contrasting the two communities, he wanted to understand the factors that led to the socioeconomic disparities between Monterey Park and the slightly more affluent Chino Hills. Yun was familiar with Chino Hills, where his uncle has lived for nearly a decade.

“I had heard a lot from my uncle regarding the city and the housing configuration,” Yun said. “So I already knew there was class segregation in the town.”

When classroom discussion turned to immigration laws, Yun had firsthand experience. He’s interested in studying racial relations within cities and believes he brings a fresh perspective.

“I came here as an outsider,” Yun said. “So I offer an outsider’s perspective on research.”

Jefferey Sellers, associate professor of political science, is leading Yun’s research team. He said students such as Yun often bring a hard-earned cultural sensitivity to whatever subject they study.

“A student from a diverse background such as Michael’s is more likely to see nuances and the complex cultural interplay, not just in cultural issues,” he said, “but also in politics, business, housing and other issues across disciplines.”

Hondagneu-Sotelo emphasized the importance of role modeling and mentoring in encouraging more students of color to enter careers in academia.

“Part of our commitment as faculty should be to strive for a diverse future professoriate,” she said, echoing Starr. “That can be done by carefully working with our students.”

Judith Jackson-Fossett, associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, agrees.

Since arriving at USC College 10 years ago, Jackson-Fossett has been active with the university’s program aimed at encouraging undergraduate students from underrepresented groups to pursue a Ph.D., especially in fields lacking diversity. Jackson-Fossett is a member of the steering committee of the program, now called the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program.

Similar fellowship programs enabled Jackson-Fossett to return to graduate school in 1990. She had first considered earning a Ph.D. while an undergraduate student at Harvard University, after encouragement from teaching fellows and professors. Then after graduation, she postponed the decision and followed many of her classmates to Wall Street for a job as a financial analyst.

“But I missed using all of my brain,” she said. After securing fellowships, she earned her graduate degree at Princeton University.

At USC, Jackson-Fossett has never missed a commencement exercise. As one of four African-American women tenured in the College, she considers the ceremonies another opportunity to educate.

Each year — as she walks across campus with other faculty members to the graduation ceremony wearing her orange and black Princeton cap and gown — she is stopped by several well-wishers.

“They all want to congratulate me because they think I’m getting my Ph.D.,” Jackson-Fossett said. “None of them considers that there might be a black woman professor. … For me to go unrecognized as a professor when I’m wearing a robe speaks to the need to diversify.”

The value of role modeling for students of color is only one benefit of having a black woman instructing a class. It is a win-win proposition for all the students, she said, explaining that in L.A. preschools, there are many African-American and Latina teachers. Later, students see fewer teachers of color.

“By the time students get to my classroom, it has been years since they have had a woman of color as a teacher and they don’t know what to think,” she said. “On the first day of class, I always arrive two minutes late — so they won’t think I’m another student.”

Ever the educator, Jackson-Fossett said that just by being at the university, she broadens the horizons of her students by giving them and their parents something to think about.

“We’re helping our students and their families understand that going to a professional school, being a doctor or a lawyer or a banker, isn’t the only thing that they can do. We want them to see life in higher education in the same way.”

That principle goes to the heart of Glenda Flores’ research. Flores, a second-year Ph.D. sociology student, is a second-generation Mexican-American who wanted to teach, but never considered becoming a professor until recently.

Her parents and counselors in high school and college encouraged her to be an elementary school teacher.

“As a Latina, it’s all that you know that you can be,” Flores said. “It’s rare to see a Latina attorney, or a Latina firefighter. But elementary school is a place where you can see Latinas.”

Flores is researching Latina teachers in Santa Ana, investigating the reasons behind a nearly 30 percent increase of Latina teachers in the past decade by interviewing them about their career choice and occupational experiences.

“There are two great advantages [in my doing] this study,” Flores said. “The first is my Latina subjectivity and the other is my insider position. I’ve lived in Santa Ana my entire life, worked in the district and was going to be an elementary school teacher.

“I heard one of my participants actually say that the reason many Latinas were going into teaching was because they thought that was all they knew and all they thought they could be,” she continued. “It was at this point that I saw my Latina subjectivity as a complete strength because it allowed her to speak freely with me and my experience resonated with her response.”

Back at the Ramirez home, Antipatro showed a visitor the stitches on the badly cut middle finger of his right hand. The 63-year-old gardener had injured his hand while at work trimming a hedge.

“It’s my first accident in 36 years, so that’s not bad,” Antipatro Ramirez said. “It could have been worse. I could have lost the whole finger.”

The accident also gave Hernan Ramirez a close look at the kinds of on-the-job injuries gardeners face daily and provided other insights into their workplace. First, the injury underscored the work ethic of gardeners such as his father, who got stitches and returned to work the following day, despite warnings from his doctor to keep the wound clean.

It also highlighted other “dangers” associated with the job. For instance, after Antipatro sliced his finger in Westwood, he drove his truck home to South Gate and left it there before heading to the hospital. He didn’t want the expensive equipment in his truck to be stolen if he parked at the hospital.

“Dangers on the job will be a large part of my thesis,” Hernan Ramirez said. “I’m working with Pierrette [Hondagneu-Sotelo] to fine tune my questions to gardeners about possible injuries.”

As Hondagneu-Sotelo observed: “Without diversity, departments would not have the richness that comes from scholars whose life experiences give them not only the drive, but the passion and particular insights to delve deeply into original and innovative projects.”