Dr. Milagros Castillo Montoya (Neag School of Education)

Milagros Castillo-Montoya: Teaching to diversity

Milagros Castillo-Montoya started her higher education career not as a faculty member but in administration, as a counselor at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She worked with racially diverse students who were the first in their family to go to college, advising them on academics and financial aid and providing support for personal problems. Many of these experiences were familiar to her from her student days at Rutgers.

Even though she felt her counseling work was “incredibly rewarding every day,” she was disturbed that it wasn’t getting at the root of the problems faced by her students. “The rest of the campus was not set up to help those students succeed,” she said.

She had first seen this failure to serve students of color in what she jokingly calls a “midlife crisis at 22,” when she was teaching low-income, bilingual first-graders in Oxnard, California. It inspired her to earn a master’s degree in social work. But she later realized that counseling students did not meet her dual needs to provide support while also having time to consider issues affecting her community.

She turned to research, which she had first been exposed to as an undergraduate McNair Scholar, and began investigating the college campus climate. Earning her Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, she decided that the combination of teaching and research in a faculty position was the career she had been looking for.

She came to UConn in January 2014, where she is an assistant professor at the Neag School of Education in Higher Education and Student Affairs. In 2016 she was one of five national recipients of the Emerging Scholars Award from ACPA-College Student Educators International.  The award supports her research into developing inclusive practices in teaching racially diverse college students.

Recognize students’ experiences

She summarizes her research topic as, “How do we teach the content to students in our classrooms who are increasingly diverse?” The key, she believes, is to “recognize the cognitive assets your students bring to the classroom that you can leverage.”

And to recognize that those assets – skills, knowledge, and practices students grew up with – can differ widely. Castillo-Montoya recalls her first days as a graduate student, hearing her peers talk about their trips abroad or their boarding school experiences. Puerto Rican by birth, she grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Jersey City, N.J., where a necklace a student wore could trigger violence, and girls had to worry about which school tunnel to walk through to be safe from rape.

“A lot of time and energy was spent just in surviving the environment,” she said.

Her background keeps her grounded, she said, and makes her realize that “there’s urgency in the work I do.”

Brainstorming with faculty

Castillo-Montoya travels around the country – to four states so far this year, including the West Coast and the Midwest – teaching faculty how to teach their first-generation racially diverse students.  With her support and help, professors come up with their own solutions.

Through brainstorming, she helps them see their subject matter from a different angle. The changes they try can be small but significant. A physics professor found a way to make his labs more welcoming and open to the experiences of minority students. A marketing professor began having students walk through poor as well as affluent neighborhoods, writing down the marketing slogans they saw and analyzing the effects in both areas. For a professor teaching oral history, she suggested that murals are a way to tell stories. It dawned on him that he had never made space in his own classes for students to share their own examples of oral history.

Surprisingly, the biggest struggle for faculty can be in the social sciences, where they may rely on the subject matter to do the work for them. “The content is relevant, so they may not go the extra mile in pedagogy,” she said. But all disciplines face challenges in finding ways to connect their subject matter to the lives of a growing racially diverse student population, she said.

To faculty who believe that some subjects are not suited to teaching to diversity, she says, “I fundamentally disagree.” But she realizes that faculty have few models to follow. And students also may resist a different approach, she said, because they are used to patterns they have seen throughout their school years.

Change: Slow but steady

While she acknowledges that changes have occurred in recent years in how students of color navigate college, she cautions, “I think we want to believe we are more progressive than we are.” She keeps a collection of ceramic turtles on the windowsills and shelves of her office, and they remind her and the graduate students she teaches that progress is slow. But it will occur, she said, one incremental change at a time.

“I look at the next generation and I’m inspired to keep it moving,” she said. “Sigue pa’lante, aunque sea a paso de tortuga” – keep moving forward, even at a turtle’s pace, as her mother would say.

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