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Guiding Students Through Thoughtful Interventions

Pivotal Moments Can Put Underrepresented Students On The Path To College

Oct. 16, 2012

In her first book, “Pivotal Moments: How Educators Can Put All Students on the Path to College,” sociologist Roberta M. Espinoza argues that “thoughtful interventions can point the way toward college, particularly for students from working-class or ethnic-minority backgrounds.”

That was the case for Espinoza, associate professor of sociology, whose first pivotal moment came when her eighth-grade English teacher invited her to join a program visiting local universities. That experience, her first introduction to higher education, started her thinking that she could go to college. Once in college, Espinoza was encouraged by a professor to apply for an academic outreach program that introduced her to graduate school and doctoral studies.

Those experiences, she notes in the book's introduction, “were pivotal because I was not the type of student most educators would have expected to earn a doctorate and become a university professor. In fact, decades of educational research suggest that my social and economic background — a Latina, living in poverty, raised in a single-parent household by a Mexican father, who had only a third-grade education — usually predicts otherwise. ... If we recognize the country’s urgent need for a large college-educated workforce, then we must figure out how schools and educators can play a more effective role in that effort.”

“Pivotal Moments” provides a look at obstacles facing underrepresented students and the role educators can play in their academic futures.

Espinoza eared her Ph.D. and M.A. in sociology from UC Berkeley and her B.A. in sociology from Pomona College. Her research examines the role of social and cultural capital in the educational advancement and success of first-generation college students. She continues to examine working-class and minority student paths to college with “Working-Class Minority Students’ Routes to Higher Education,” her second book published earlier this year by Routledge.

Before joining the faculty at CSUF in 2007, she worked at various research institutes, including the UC Berkeley Center for Working Families, the UCLA Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing, the National Institute of Psychiatry in Mexico and the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute.

Through life stories, “Pivotal Moments” illustrates why underrepresented students “need significant academic interventions.” There’s the story of Blanca, for example, in Chapter 2:

Blanca is a Latina in her sixth year of doctoral study at a highly selective public university in California. She is from a low-income background; her mother is a sales clerk, and her father works as a painter. Neither of her parents graduated from high school. She grew up in a household with her mother, father and three younger siblings. Blanca had numerous family and household responsibilities growing up, which included cooking, cleaning and caring for her younger siblings. In addition to her household responsibilities, Blanca was expected to be a good student in school.

Blanca experienced educational Pivotal Moments in high school through the intervention of three high school teachers. During tenth grade, her English teacher, Ms. Ryan, took her aside one day and insisted she be in Honors-level English and “wouldn't leave her alone” until she took the entrance exam for the class. Ms. Ryan not only encouraged her to take the exam but also counseled her through the testing process, building her academic confidence along the way. As Blanca recalled, this was the first time an educator reached out to her and made her feel like an exceptional student:

“My sophomore year English teacher insisted that I take the entrance exam for the Honors English class junior year. Up until that point, none of my teachers had indicated that they felt I was exceptional. I certainly did well in my courses, but no one had said that they felt I wasn't being challenged enough. So her insistence that I could do Honors-level course work really had an impact on me. Until that point, I hadn't even considered trying to place into Honors-level courses, and so her comments and support began to change the way that I saw myself as a student and the way that I perceived my intellectual abilities.Thanks to her, I took the placement exam and got into Honors English.”

In addition to receiving a boost of confidence about her academic abilities, Blanca explained the impact the Honors English course ultimately had on her college aspirations and planning, because, as she noted, “A significant component of the course entailed preparing us for college applications.”

The academic intervention Blanca’s teacher initiated had profound long-term consequences on her educational trajectory. For the first time, she began to develop a process to set and work to attain educational goals. As a result, Blanca learned to advocate for herself in school and to get into more rigorous courses to prepare for college. “Once I figured out how things worked, I also asked my counselor to sign me up for Honors Chemistry and AP Government,” she said. “Once on that track, I didn't think twice about taking Honors and AP course work my senior year.” The advanced courses also made Blanca more academically prepared and competitive for college admissions. The effort her English teacher made to connect her with academic information at this critical time in her education placed Blanca on the path to seeing higher education as a possibility after high school.

Blanca’s biology teacher, Ms. Sullivan, also initiated an academic intervention with her during high school. She recounted how their relationship started: “I met her when I took her biology course as a sophomore, but then she requested that I be her AP Biology teaching assistant my junior and senior years in high school.” In addition to counseling Blanca academically when she was her teaching assistant, Ms. Sullivan connected with her on a personal level by making an effort  to understand her family situation. Blanca explained many of the roles Ms. Sullivan played in her life as her Pivotal Moment educator:

“I developed a very close relationship with my biology teacher. Not only did she support and advise me academically in high school, and encourage me to consider a number of colleges, but she was there for me when things with my father were rocky, when we didn't have money to do things that she felt were a crucial experience for high school kids (e.g. go to prom, buy a yearbook), and generally provided me with emotional and moral support. ... She bought my prom dress so I could go, talked to my parents when they adamantly refused to let me go on the senior class trip to Yosemite, and generally tried to mediate between the very rigid and strict method of child rearing that my parents were accustomed to, and the kind of freedom and experiences that seem ‘normal.’ ”

Excerpted from “Pivotal Moments” (2011) by Roberta Espinoza with permission from Harvard Education Press. Learn more at

By: Mimi Ko Cruz, 657-278-7586

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