There’s more that meets the eye when it comes to most things in life. In one specific area of research, however, the impulse to dive deeper and look beyond the surface had long been avoided.   

That’s something UNM Sociology Professor and director and co-founder of the Institute for the Study of “Race” & Social Justice Nancy López has made a priority with the concept of intersectionality, long before the rest of the world caught on.  

“One of the organizing principles of intersectionality is that we can’t understand complex inequality if we focus on only one dimension of inequality,” López said. “It’s about having a new vision. When we examine inequalities in terms of race alone or ethnicity alone or gender alone, or whether you're the first in your family to earn a four-year college degree alone, we may miss opportunities to remove barriers that may not even be visible.”  

Now, she has just been awarded a prestigious $1.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant from the Hispanic-Serving Institution Program (HSI), to create a hub, a connector, and a resource for all who are interested in advancing equity and student success in STEM. It’s a huge honor for López and UNM.

“Our theory of change starts with convening multi-level stakeholders that share an ethical commitment to advancing equity in higher education. We can create enduring institutional change through this commitment to learning from each other and ourselves, and can create equitable conditions for student success at all levels in HSIs and beyond.”

– UNM Institute for the Study of “Race” & Social Justice co-Founder & Director, Professor of Sociology, Nancy López. 

“There is no secret that we haven't had as much success in diversifying who earns degrees in STEM and who becomes a leader in STEM. We know that we have to do something different,” López said. “Business as usual is not working. Our hope is that through creating a convergence space – a community of practice – for faculty, administrators, and students, across disciplines to come and look at some hard numbers, share ideas and promising practices that impact student success.”    

It’s part of a $3 million total lump of five-year funding, UNM will be dividing with other HSIs, including: New Mexico State University (NMSU), Central New Mexico Community College (CNM). with Felecia Canton-Garcia and Teresa Maria Linda Scholz, and multiple branches of the City University of New York (CUNY) López’s alma mater, including City College, Lehman College and Hostos Community. 

“Just like we know that Las Cruces is not Albuquerque and New Mexico is not New York, we aim to center the cultural wealth of communities that are often at the margins of STEM. We are committed to understanding the dynamics of power and the complex historical context of each particular institution and region for advancing student success,” López said.  

A lack of knowledge, a lack of equity 

UNM will be part of this process to re-envision data for creating impactful policies. The work ahead will also design communities of practice with faculty fellows and other stakeholders, including students and community leaders who share a passionate commitment to imagining a different future in STEM education.    

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Nancy López

The idea is that without intersectional inquiry and praxis we don't know who we are serving and impacting.  It is our hope that through sharing that insight, we can achieve a more robust understanding of barriers and possibilities for strategic action for advancing student success,”  López said. 

Despite the large amount of research evidence that documents major inequities in educational attainment among distinct Hispanic origin groups, few institutions of higher education do the same. Research shows that childhood class origin, as measured by parent/guardian educational attainment at age 16, is a consequential data point for illuminating barriers. Yet, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDs), which oversees federal reporting for all institutions of higher education, does not collect this info.   

“To our knowledge, not a single institution of higher education in the U.S. employs intersectionality for analyzing and reporting baseline equity metrics, such as admissions, enrollment, retention, degree attainment or postsecondary outcomes,” López said. 

The goal is to, in the end, have a concrete plan on how to advance equity in STEM education for all underserved student populations, and build successes once they move forward in it.  

“With this grant we have an opportunity to lead the nation in having a better understanding of what we are serving and how we are advancing equitable success,” López said. “One thing is clear: removing barriers to student success requires illuminating intersectional inequities as a first step for advancing transformational equity.” 

To meet this goal, López and colleagues will strategically create virtual spaces for interactive conversations with presenters, faculty fellows, HSI researchers and academic leaders about the relevance of intersectionality for system-level change for student success. The hub will also hold monthly virtual drop-in hours for anyone interested in learning about intersectionality policy and practice. 

“We may learn something new because prior to this analysis, most departments might tell you they’ve graduated so many women, or so many Black, Latino, Native American, White and Asian students,” López said. “We have yet to see any particular institution of higher ed that embraces intersectionality as a normative principle, as a baseline understanding of the inequities that are happening under our roof.”  

The work ahead

This grant and this undertaking is no small feat. With the help of Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: HSI Program this Track 3 Institutional Transformation Project (ITP) is expected to take the full five years, with plenty of sub-groups, phases, and edits. 120 dedicated researchers across the country are involved, including co-Principal Investigator, UNM College of Population Health Assistant Professor Claudia Diaz Fuentes. 

“Acknowledging the importance of intersectionality for advancing equity, without a strategic plan to remove barriers and redistribute resources for advancing student success, is a missed opportunity to build capacity in our communities and ensure a better future for New Mexico and our nation,” Diaz Fuentes said.

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Claudia Diaz Fuentes

Previous research has shown reporting higher education outcomes by race, gender or class alone is not adequate for keeping track and improving inequities. 

“This is about how research serves institutions and the community. Now what we're talking about is what's the translational nature of intersectionality across the board for higher education,” Diaz Fuentes said. “That translation for me is the way intersectionality marries the research with social justice practices.”  

It’s also clear in examining outcomes within Latinx communities by race. In one report using Census data, it’s found that Black Latinx communities experience higher rates of poverty and lower rates of home ownership than non-Black Latinos, in spite of higher levels of education, which echoes the experience of non-Hispanic Blacks.  

“When something is related to health policy, it is profoundly complex in the concept of intersection,” Diaz Fuentes said. “For example, for our students in university environments, there are some who are simultaneously parents, who are also employed and who might have learned English as a second language. They may have also grown up in a household where no parent or guardian had the privilege of pursuing a four-year college degree. In addition to their academics, this other stuff is happening.”  

Like Diaz Fuentes highlights, it’s a health issue as well. Researchers failing to analyze all factors in a person’s life could hinder solutions to mitigating racial wealth gaps, the crisis of unhoused individuals and families, as well as the prison industrial complex. 

“Going beyond intersectionality as a ‘buzzword,’ means consistently engaging issues of power and ensuring that higher education institutions, and eventually everyone takes all factors of a person into consideration is something that is very much considered a Population Health issue.” – Co-Principal Investigator and UNM College of Population Health Assistant Professor Claudia Diaz Fuentes. 

“The power of this lens can transform ways of seeing, ways of knowing, ways of doing and really impacting those communities that remain at the margins,” López said.  

Combining university institutional administrative data, surveys, and discussion among a diverse advisory board made up of students, faculty and researchers, there will be tons of deliverables the NSF is investing in. That includes faculty fellows and a handbook entitled, Practicing Intersectionality as Inquiry and Praxis in STEM.   

“Analyzing data locally in one place as academics, we always wonder what is the external validity of this finding? Can I bring it everywhere and say, this conclusion is application based?” Diaz Fuentes said. “I see that part of the field, the possibility of making things visible in this partnership and address this in a way that speaks to more groups across the board.”   

The ITP will showcase data collection, office hours, lectures and strategies publicly online here. That’s where the public will also be able to see a plan for how to implement change at all levels, possible issues and solutions to them and a communications blueprint on how universities should integrate intersectionality into its everyday activities.   

Beyond the university setting

“What we're doing is creating new knowledge, a model, a new gold standard for equity metrics that considers power, context, history, and science,” López said. “Whether it's biology or physics, math or sociology, making these inequalities visible helps us to confront inequities and create a community of practice committed to sharing and implementing promising strategies for advancing equity.” 

It’s a crisis outside of the university level; it’s fundamental in analyzing inequality at all levels. A recent study shows a complicated picture of inequities within Latino communities when you engage in intersectionality. Although Black Latinos have higher levels of education than non-Black Latinos, they have lower median household incomes and homeownership than those Latinos that are not Black.

“How could we use intersectionality as a new pair of eyeglasses to understand complex configurations of inequality? We are able to do that for every single field, because we made that institutional change. We're really trying to create a data policy network for action that is going to transform institutional data metrics, and deal with the elephant in the room,” López said. 

“What is happening here that we haven't seen before because in the past we're just looking at race or gender or class alone, and now we will be focused on all of these as simultaneous categories of experience to create innovations about how are we going to remove those barriers?”– UNM Institute for the Study of “Race” & Social Justice co-Founder & Director, Professor of Sociology, Nancy López. 

Intersectionality paints a complex issue in New Mexico as well. One UNM analysis of the 2019 American Community Survey shows while 40% of White men over the age of 25 in New Mexico have earned a four-year college degree or higher, the figure for Hispanic men is 14%. At the national level the percentages are 36% versus 16%, respectively.  

“We need a new picture to understand inequality, and focus on the process of building communities of practice around intersectionality and equity and. It's a constant, dynamic process. Creating equity in education means acknowledging its complexity and making it concrete,” Diaz Fuentes said.  

While the numbers are evident enough, the qualitative aspect is critical as well.  

“I am a Black, Latina, U.S.-born daughter of Dominican immigrants who never had the privilege of pursuing education beyond the second grade. I grew up in public housing and Spanish is my first language. I have a very unique experience, but it is not the same as my Chicano husband's experience who is also the first in his family to earn a college degree but has no immigrant roots,” López said. 

That’s another reason, López is pushing for data by specific Hispanic origin, especially at HSIs. 

“We need to understand the picture of inequality that becomes visible when we consider unique experiences within heterogeneous communities and historical context,” she said.

Just because the NSF grant ends, however, does not mean the work does. What López is pushing so hard for, she has been for years. Despite her other funded research projects involving the role of ethnic study courses on inequality, as well as employing intersectionality frameworks for revising federal data standards, efforts like these need to be the norm across the board.  

“This is what you do when things go bad. You find ways to shed light and take action. I think that's what this project is effectively designed to do,” Diaz Fuentes said.  

Lightbulbs should not only gleam in the minds of university leadership, but at all levels of K-12.   

“We can advance student success. Our hope is that once we create a model for institutional system-wide enduring change, we can also bring more resources for providing resources and funding to create new opportunities for STEM education and beyond,” López said.  

Despite what López and Fuentes find, it’s crystal clear that taking a deeper look, rather than a quick glance, is integral for the future of higher education and beyond.   

“I remain optimistic. It is true we have all these challenges, but there are also opportunities for better serving our students,” López said. 

One of those opportunities López and Diaz Fuentes push for is New Mexico Senate Bill 465. If reintroduced in the next legislative session, and passed, it would collect parent educational level data through an intersectional lens. This research team believes everyone can consider how intersectionality can strengthen student success in STEM and other fields. 

“How can we know who we are serving if we continue to report outcomes from preschool to graduate school by race alone or gender alone or parent/guardian level of educational attainment alone?” Lopez said. “How will you operationalize and bring to life intersectionality as inquiry and practice in your spheres of influence? Whether it’s a classroom, department, university or beyond, what actions will you take?”