Did the title of this post make you uneasy? My guess is that you seldom received that advice from mentors, family members, or friends; and if you teach, you would most likely never give that advice to your own students. From a very young age I learned to be giving of my time and money. Sharing and helping others were desirable qualities—selfishness was not. As I re-read this last sentence, I can’t help but still agree with that statement. I try to instill these same values in my own ten-year-old daughter. However, I constantly find myself encouraging students to be selfish! As a Latina professor at a large research university, I constantly battle with this moral paradox when it comes to advising my Latina/o students.
I have the honor of mentoring students of color, predominately Latino students. These students seek me out because I am often the only Latina professor in the department and some of them are able to identify with me because I teach courses on Latinos and immigration. I am bilingual, the first in my family to graduate from college, and I come from a working class family. I also enjoy getting to know my students. I ask them about their families and they feel comfortable talking with me about their personal and educational backgrounds, as well as their academic aspirations.
I have discovered that when I ask my undergraduate Latino students about their future academic aspirations, they usually reply in the same way: “I don’t know,” they say, “I just want to be able to help people.” Then they list professions such as social work, teaching, law, and even sociology. As I hear their responses, I think of my own college years, when I felt the same way. This type of response used to give me a warm sensation and hope in humanity. After all, it is great when students want to pursue a career that helps others. Today, I don’t feel as optimistic by this altruistic response. It now worries me that Latino students are being limited to “helping” professions that are not always as financially rewarding and socially transformative as they imagine.
Underprivileged students who face social inequalities in their communities and schools often turn to careers that allow them to support both their families and other racial and ethnic minorities. According to sociologist Jody Agius Vallejo, middle class Latinos from working class backgrounds are more likely to “give back” to kin and co-ethnics (see her book, Barrios to Burbs). In her work on racialized tokens, for example, sociologist Glenda Flores found that Latina primary school teachers are tracked into teaching and, once there, develop a missionary zeal and actively advocated for their Latino students. Similarly, Maya A. Baesley and Mary J. Fischer’s research shows that talented black college students “opt out” of high-paying and high-status careers for fear of discrimination in particular fields such as science, engineering, information technology, and finance (see here). After graduation, some of these students then choose jobs that, although low-paying, enable them to help the black community. In these studies, discrimination experienced by communities of color shapes the educational trajectory of young men and women.
In my own research with Mexican child street vendors in Los Angeles (see here and here), I found that these youth had two main career aspirations that would empower them to help their communities and their own street vending parents—law and law enforcement. Their decisions to choose these careers were rooted in their everyday street vending struggles. For example, one parent told me: “I have always said to my son, like I have seen many injustices with the police here in my community, and in reality we do need legal representation. … At first he told me that he wanted to be a lawyer and then he said ‘No, I don’t just want to be a lawyer, I want to be a judge.’” Similarly, thirteen-year-old Arturo said his parents wanted him to be “something in life. Like a Lawyer or a hero.” When I asked him to clarify, he said “Like a lawyer, a police officer because they save people… Someone that is considered a hero.” Many of my respondents wanted to become heroes to the struggling people in their lives.
The students that come to my office express a similar sentiment. They have experienced and witnessed many injustices in their communities and wish to major in fields that will allow them to enact change. I too come from a generation of Latino students who saw education as a way out of poverty and a promise to create positive social change. But this is a heavy burden to carry. I opt to encourage students to pursue careers they love and to focus on themselves—to be selfish! Students are usually surprised that I give this advice. Their reactions, however, are not as cutting as those I get from other Latino professionals, some who are close friends. Among other things, I have been told that I am too “Americanized.” Some express surprise and then gesture in disagreement while trying to change the conversation.
I hope to see a day when my own daughter and Latino students who come to my office don’t feel constrained by their mission to help, but rather are moved to choose jobs based on their individual intellectual curiosities. I am confident that if giving back is in their heart, then they will find a way to help people by becoming social workers, teachers, attorneys, doctors, engineers, chemists, or graphic designers. So, my dear students, be selfish. And while you are at it, do your best in whatever field you choose. I’m sure you will positively impact a life or two or more along the way.
Emir Estrada is Assistant Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.