Jesse Bernal: Finding a Seat in the Classroom for Minority Students

When Jesse Bernal decided to get an education, he took a one-way ticket train ride from his native hometown of Texas to California without any money left in his pocket to go back in case he changed his mind.

“I knew that it was up to me to do well. I had to succeed. I couldn’t afford another train ride back to Texas, so it was all in my hands from that moment on to stay motivated,” said Bernal.

Jesse BernalA native of Placedo, Texas, Bernal grew up in a community of no more than 500 people—most of them Latino and migrant farm workers who made ends meet day in and day out. He was raised by a single mother who strived to raise three boys, including his twin brother, on the meager wages of a teacher’s assistant.
When times got tough, his grandmother stepped in to help the family.

Going to college was not only a dream for many in this small town; it was an expensive, far-fetched and lofty goal that few could ever dream of becoming a reality.

That wasn’t the case with Bernal. From a young age, he knew it was college that would offer him and his family a way out of poverty and upward mobility in the economic ladder of society.

“I didn’t know what college was until my junior year in high school. I was involved in student government and had the opportunity to visit college campuses, and that was the extent of my college preparation,” said Bernal.

But Bernal was intelligent and he excelled in academics. College was inevitable.

His schooling in the small South Texas community, nestled near neighboring Corpus Christie didn’t have all or enough resources to help him get to college. He faced a fair share of economic hardships at home and the possibility of going to college was one not necessarily engrained in him from the start. Despite being at a disadvantage, what he faced didn’t dim his sights on pursuing a college education.

After earning several scholarships that offered him full tuition at a handful of Texas universities, Bernal thought it would be best to venture away from home, relieve himself of the pressures of wanting to stay home to provide for his family and instead, opted to take a route that would offer he and his family more economic stability in the long run.
That’s when he turned his sights on California.

He landed a spot at Westmont University in California and attended on a ‘Diversity’ scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science four years later becoming the first in his family to obtain a college degree.

Crossing the finish line was no easy feat. He was one of a handful of Latino’s on the Westmont campus—less than 1%–and a minority among his peers. His experiences were unique to his student counterparts who had been mostly raised in privileged households not having faced any serious trials and tribulations.

“Socially, I just didn’t fit in. I didn’t know how I was going to be successful. Even though I did well academically, I often thought about leaving and didn’t feel connected to the university. As I became more aware of my surroundings and the uniqueness of my experiences which I had in common with other Latinos on campus, I immediately knew what kind of career I was going to pursue,” said Bernal.

Shortly after graduating from college, Bernal entered a Ph.D program at UC Santa Barbara where he focused his research on first-generation, underrepresented minority college student transitions and development with a focus on assessment and methodologies, program evaluation, organizational culture, affirmative action and non-discrimination policy and law including models of diversity in higher education.

In sum, he wanted to know the reasons why there was a lack of Latinos and other underrepresented minority groups in college campuses across the state and of those, why so many struggled to get through the system.

“From the beginning of my research I found that our [educational] system is inherently flawed. From the start, historically underrepresented minority groups are at a disadvantage because the way schools, such as colleges and universities teach is based on a Eurocentric model that is geared toward historically traditional ‘white’populations,” said Bernal.

As a result, people of color are often left out of the system because they don’t fit the existing model. Then there are social and socio-economic factors like the high levels of poverty prevalent within their communities, limited access to information and resources and a lack of other college-educated family members that keep them out of the system.

Additionally, most colleges and universities implement a biased admissions system that overly values test scores and doesn’t measure a student holistically.

“How do you measure a student who eating five days a week is a sign of resilience? How do you measure that on a college application?,” said Bernal.

College outreach programs are underutilized and function on limited resources in providing enough information and resources to historically underrepresented groups who seek to make their way to college.

But that is all changing in California, thanks to Bernal’s research which has had major influence across many of the public colleges across the state, including most within the UC System.

“For me, it’s about educational equity and the importance of getting and supporting underrepresented groups in college. In doing so, it means changing policies and employing politicians and other decision makers on how to offer a place for all students of color in a college campus,” said Bernal.

Two years ago, Bernal earned his Ph.D. in Cultural Perspectives in Education from UC Santa Barbara. At 32-years-old, Bernal is currently the Director of Diversity and Inclusion and Santa Clara University and is working on developing strategies for the recruitment, retention and success of faculty from underrepresented groups while promoting a student climate of inclusive excellence by collaborating with University offices in sponsoring curricular, co-curricular and extracurricular programs in an effort to recruit a more diverse student body and staff.

Bernal says all students of underrepresented minority groups including Latinos need to begin seeing college as the right choice for them, and a viable option that is within their reach and within their potential.
“Too often Latinos and other groups hear that ‘college might not be the right thing for you’ but I say, we need to prioritize college and have it be an option that can be the gateway to other possibilities and other paths. It may not be necessary to experience success with a college degree, but it will certainly increase your chances and it shouldn’t be an option just left at the table,” said Bernal.