- Associated Press - Thursday, March 13, 2014

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - Literacy. Discrimination. Race. Identity. Language acquisition. Education. Future aspirations.

These are themes University of Wyoming junior Norma C. Lira-Perez discovered by transcribing interviews with young Latinas in Wyoming as part of her undergraduate research assistant work.

“After transcribing interviews I read through them and pick out common themes,” said Lira-Perez, who is from Jackson. “Some themes fit in one category. Some themes fit in three.”

What she realized during hours of transcribing and sorting through the interviews is that the girls’ experiences are not too different from her own.

“The things the girls talked about during the interviews resonated with me so much,” she said. “I want to know more and to be able to come up with explanations, observe, analyze these things. I think that helps me a lot. … It’s nice to see it in a different light.”



Lira-Perez, 20, has been working with Aurora Chang, assistant professor of educational studies at UW, to help organize the information Chang gathered last year through several one-on-one interviews with Latina students in Jackson who are part of a group called College Bound Latinas.

Chang, a Latina with family from Guatemala and China, was interested in doing ethnographic research on how Latinas in Jackson end up becoming successful college-bound students, so she conducted the interviews. With funding for a research assistant in hand she enlisted Lira-Perez to help.

Chang wanted to study Jackson girls to see how teachers can help Latinos.

Her first scholarly article, “Resisting the Orthodox Smart Label: High School Latinas and the Redefinition of Smartness on the Western Frontier,” examines how young Latinas have different ideas of what constitutes intelligence and how those differ from society’s ideas, she said. She’s hoping to get it published this year.

“Sometimes the values that the students place on being intelligent or smart are not necessarily the values that teachers, community members (have),” Chang said.

For a lot of the students she interviewed, being quiet and meek in class is a sign of respect.

“For teachers, they may interpret that as she’s not participating, she’s passive,” Chang said. “That, as you can imagine, can create a disconnect where there’s a misinterpretation of behavior.”

She has also found during her research that a stereotype that Latino families don’t care about education is absolutely not true.

“A lot of these students’ parents haven’t had a lot of education themselves from their country of origin,” Chang said. “They value education tremendously. They might not necessarily know how to access the system, though. It’s less about passion or desire for education and more about lack of information, access, cultural difference.”

When she’s not at class or working with Chang, Lira-Perez is breaking a sweat at the Half Acre Gym, studying at the Multicultural Resource Center, acting as a peer mentor and serving as the secretary of student organization MEChA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlan.

While at Jackson Hole High School, Lira-Perez was a part of the U.S. Department of Education’s GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs). It helped her decide to go to college, although she didn’t realize until her senior year that she would actually be able to go to college, she said.

“I didn’t think past high school,” Lira-Perez said.

She is the first in her family - which immigrated to the United States from the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico - to go on to higher education. Her maternal grandparents Alejandrina Garcia de Peres and Jose Peres Salazar still live in San Simeon. Lira-Perez’s mom is one of eight of their children who left Mexico to live in Jackson Hole. Lira-Perez was born in Rexburg, Idaho, and moved to Jackson shortly after.

Working with Chang and being involved in the research project made Lira-Perez change her major from psychology to social sciences. Social sciences is a major in which students pick four areas of emphasis from a variety of options. Lira-Perez is focusing on psychology, sociology, Latino studies and women’s studies.

For Lira-Perez the research project is “a great chance to get into the nitty-gritty and actually experience” her major, she said. Spending time with Chang has also made her more ambitious, she said, “which is a good thing.”

Lira-Perez aspires to go to graduate school and eventually get a doctorate. Before, she really wasn’t sure what she was going to do.

“I’ve seen Norma change quite a bit, not in her core but in her aspirations,” Chang said. “It’s been really great.”

Lira-Perez’s mentorship with Chang has changed and sharpened her focus, and she strives to be a role model for a younger Latina population, to let girls know that they should work hard in high school and that they can actually go to and afford college, she said.

“They have to be ambitious,” Lira-Perez said.

Lira-Perez wishes she had been more ambitious in high school and taken advantage of the dual-enrollment program in which students can earn college credit while still in secondary classes, she said.

“It’s very important to start early,” Lira-Perez said. “Once you’re here you start from scratch, and you have a lot to learn.”

She wants to give younger girls hope and someone to look up to, she said.

That’s what Chang has given her. And from their relationship, Chang wants to develop other mentorship programs for high school and college students.

A group of young Latinas will travel to the University of Wyoming during spring break this month to shadow students there and see what classes are like.

Chang also has developed an idea of a formal mentorship program in which students from traditionally underrepresented populations work with university professors to do research on their communities, she said. Much as Lira-Perez and Chang are already doing.

Latinas are often overlooked in class and society, Lira-Perez said. She has experienced it.

“I didn’t see it as a problem at the time,” she said. “I guess it’s just an eye-opener. … As a Chicana here as well, I see these things, but I don’t know what to make of them, I don’t know how to explain them.”

The research is helping her piece it all together.

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Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, https://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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