Creating an Educational Ecosystem that Embraces Racial and Ethnic Diversity
Episode 4

Creating an Educational Ecosystem that Embraces Racial and Ethnic Diversity

Guest: Milagros Castillo-Montoya

Education is student-centric. In the conventional education system, schools and universities have set up organizations, policies, and systems to provide students with the things that they need. COVID changed the educational landscape. Today, a larger number of schools in the country are considering online education, a move that raises questions on topics of learning, creating meaningful relationships with students, and the influence of socioeconomic status (SES) on education. In this episode of the Stemify podcast, we are privileged to have Dr. Milagros Montoya-Castillo. Milagros shares her thoughts on challenges students will be facing once they go back to school. She discusses facilitating active learning, fostering authentic and meaningful relationships with students, ensuring that the school provides a solid support system for the online students, and more. She also talks about continuous professional development for faculty, the need for a holistic view on education, and showing care for students through practices, policies, and structures. This interview is packed with insights, so tune in and listen to my exciting conversation with Dr. Milagros Montoya-Castillo!

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Episode Notes

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Amit Savkar:
Good morning, everybody. Today, I have the pleasure of having Dr. Milagros Castillo Montoya, who’s an Assistant Professor in Higher Education in the Department of Education Leadership in the Neag School of Education of UConn. Her research focuses on the equitable experiences and outcomes for racially minorities and historically underserved college students. Dr. Castillo-Montoya primarily studies teaching and learning in classrooms with racially and ethnically diverse college students with a particular focus on the experiences of black and Latino first-generation college students. She has published on teaching and learning and the experiences of racially diverse college students and faculty and various academic journals, including the Review of Higher Education, Harvard Education Review, Teaching in Higher Education, and the Review of Educational Research, among other outlets. Her career began in higher education as a counselor for the Students and Educational Opportunity Fund program at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. This is a program for first-generation college students with low-income backgrounds. Launching her career in higher education to this position was very special for her, as this was the same very program she was part of as an undergraduate student. She has drawn on her expertise in college teaching and learning for racially minorities and historically underserved college students to support colleges and universities across the nation in an effort to improve faculty teaching. She is committed to creating transformation in college teaching so that racially polarized and historically underserved college students have a meaningful college education. We are very fortunate to have her today and welcome to the podcast with Stemify. Good morning.

Milagros Castillo-Montoya:
Good morning Amit. Thank you for inviting me to be here with you today.

Amit Savkar:
So let’s get into the conversation. So what do you think is the biggest challenge to access initiative motivation in education?

Milagros Castillo-Montoya:
Well, when I think about access two things come to mind. First, I think about students getting an opportunity to gain entry into something or to something. And in this case, it would be education broadly and online education specifically. When I think about access from that point of view, one of the biggest challenges is whether students have the resources to actually access online education, things like computers, internet, or even just a quiet place to participate in their own learning and other things that they might need. So that’s one way to think about access. Another way that I think about access and it relates a bit more to the research and work that I do is thinking about what students get access to once they are in college. Some more specifically, what kind of education do they get access to? When I think about education, I think about access to academic content knowledge, but I also think about other things like what kind of interactions do they have access to with their faculty, what kind of interaction so they have access to with their peers? What breadth and depth of knowledge are they given access to and how much of that knowledge connects with their actual lives, which is shaped by the multiple identities that they might hold, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and other identities.

Milagros Castillo-Montoya:
So when I think about online education, a big challenge that comes to mind is how do you foster a community learning experience online? How can students collaborate with each other? And how do they apply their learning to the communities that they feel most connected to when they’re in an online education environment? And there’s a real big challenge for faculty and professors. How do you continue to facilitate active learning in an online environment? I think these are really critical questions that we have to think about that present challenges related to access. And because of my research and my own identities, I think a lot about first-generation college students and specifically black and other racial minority students. And I think we have to when we’re thinking about this population for these populations, we have to think about and give careful consideration to how do we foster authentic, meaningful relationships with students, especially in an online environment. I think faculty really have to ask themselves how they posture those types of relationships. And we have to ask a critical question. Do students even have access to faculty who care about them and their full humanity? That’s a critical question that we have a big responsibility to consider when thinking about access.

Amit Savkar:
I think you really made some very critical points here when you talk about what students have access to once they are in the institution and what their academic interactions with professors and peers, how they shape their own views about what education is and what is the meaningful aspect of education that is being provided through these institutions. So let’s talk about a little bit more about the access aspect, and I know your researchers played a lot of attention to the very intricate aspects of access. Well, do you think the SES plays a role in this?

Milagros Castillo-Montoya:
I think that’s an important question, because, again, I think we can think about access in terms of social class and socio-economic class in two ways. One is to students have access to basic resources, right? Like computer, internet books, space. And these are super important and cannot be overlooked. So I definitely do not want to minimize that. In terms of my work, though, I think about other aspects of socioeconomic class, like what ideas to students come into learning with. What ideas they have about what it means to learn, what it means to engage with peers. And those ideas may or may not align with what faculty are thinking. I think about access and social class in terms of making sure that students know who to ask questions to. What are the resources on campus? How do they get support if they need it? In an online environment, this might be harder for them. So when you’re on campus, you might run into someone or you might pass an office and see a label on an office door that makes you think, oh, maybe here. Or you might attempt things in different buildings that expose you to some resources. But if you’re online, it’s really more on you to figure out where all those resources are. And I think in terms of social class, we, the faculty and administrations really have to think about how do we lessen the burden of this transition on students, especially for students who may be the first in their families to be going to college or the first in their families to be studying within STEM. So how do we figure out the ways that we could use an online environment in efficient and effective way so that we can help them figure out the rules of learning online instead of having them figure it out on their own? I think that’s important.

Amit Savkar:
That’s very important. That is very important. So what are we doing about this as a community or what can we do about as a community?

Milagros Castillo-Montoya:
Right. Well, you know, specifically focusing on the part that I think I’m a little bit more concerned about, which is how do we lessen the burden so that they don’t have to figure out the rules of learning online on their own? I think that one thing we’re doing is that we are offering a lot more professional development for faculty. So I see a lot more workshops on like online teaching, on engaging students. And I think that’s fantastic. Absolutely needed and very good. So I hope that faculty take advantage of those opportunities. And I also think that there’s more professional development for faculty happening right now on how to teach in classrooms and in courses where you have more diverse students, especially racially diverse students and across social class right. And I think those are very good and very important. The challenge, though, is that I think we need to sustain that support. So one workshop is not enough. Faculty really do need sustained professional development in teaching in classrooms with students who are diverse by race, ethnicity, social class, and other identities. And by sustained, I mean a curriculum that is progressive, you know, where it can build on one another. Each session can build on it. So this faculty are growing in what they know, but also that it continues over time, because as you learn one new idea as a faculty member about how to engage this population in your course, you might go and try it. But then what happens in my in some of my research, I’ve seen my faculty learn how to diversify their curriculum so that the content of their teaching is more relevant for their diverse, racially diverse students. And they get very excited about that, which is awesome. But then what happens is that there’s now conversations happening in their courses that never happened before. And then they’re not ready for that. They’re like, whoa, hold on a minute, I just diversified my curriculum, but what do I do now?

Milagros Castillo-Montoya:
And so I think sustained professional development is absolutely necessary. And I really am a big believer that we can put all the burden on individuals. We really have to think about the systems. So even though everything I just said was about how faculty need sustained support and need to engage in professional development in a sustained way, I also must say that this is only possible for faculty to do if the institutions where they work value teaching enough that they support their faculty to engage in such sustained professional development. And that means providing them with the resources and the time to engage in professional development and to reward those efforts because otherwise, if we don’t do this, if institutions don’t do that, then we just continue to put the burden on the students rather than ourselves.

Amit Savkar:
That’s very well said because this is a part of an ecosystem and there’s never, you know, when I talk about the ecosystem that are different stakeholders, the students, everything that we do is student-centric. But when it is about the students and there are different stakeholders contributing to the development and the education of the students. You have the institution, the faculty, the governing bodies. We look at it as a holistic aspect of how deliberate we are in making sure that we are doing what we are doing for our students to have the access to quality of education that is important from their growth and for their development. And that is very well Milagros. I mean, I think it’s a very important point that you bring in from the perspective of what the faculty needs to do. So what is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career?

Milagros Castillo-Montoya:
You know, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned and I learned is in multiple roles when I was an administrator. And then it shifted in a different way when I became a faculty member. But the lesson was so the same in that I learned that caring for students in our hearts is not enough. It is necessary, but it’s not enough. The care and the love that we might have for students must be visible in our practices and our policies and in the structures that we create and sustain. We must be intentional in how we enact our care so that students really feel that they matter. It’s not enough for me to say I care about you, I have to show it. And the way you show it is through your practices, your policies and the structures, not just because you feel it in your heart. That’s one big lesson that I learned. And so I encourage faculty and I do this for myself as I consistently revisit things and assess for myself where do I need to grow so that I better understand where my students are coming from, what their experiences are like, how does my syllabus communicate through the content and even aesthetic that I care about my students holistically? How do my office hours show that I care? What time do I schedule them? What days do students have access to me during that day and time because otherwise I might make office of the office hours available? But if it doesn’t really work for the students that I teach, I’m not showing them that I care about them.

Amit Savkar:
That’s very true. I mean, I think that, you know, in mathematics we say necessary and sufficient condition. I like the idea that you have mentioned that it is not enough that we care in our hearts for our students, but also show it in practice. And that is so important to do. You have any story to share with us about how you have anything that you would like to link our listeners to know about a story that you’ve come across in your career which has touched your heart?

Milagros Castillo-Montoya:
You know that I’m going to go to this care part again, because I think this is something that actually has stayed with me, even though it started I experienced this story very early in my career, but it still has stayed with me. When I was an EOF counselor, which is the educational opportunity front program. We really did so much for the students. We were academic advisors. We were financial aid counselors. We were personal counselors with students’ lives and helping them manage so many things going on in their lives. And so basically we were a one-stop shop. Whatever the students needed our goal was to help facilitate that for them, help them connect to whatever they needed on campus. And for many of the students, we were the family away from home. For them, they were all first-generation students, which meant they were the first in their families to go to college. So all of them were figuring this out for the very first time on their own. And our office and our staff, we were the family that they had on campus. And it just goes to show how much care matters for students’ experiences. Because I remember one day I had a student in my office. I had my door closed because we were in an advising session and then someone’s knocking on my door, almost like with an urgent knock you know. So of course, I opened it because I’m thinking something’s wrong. And there’s a student of mine, his name is Luis. And he was there holding his head up and his fingers on his nose. And I’m like, What’s wrong, Luis? And he says, I’m bleeding from my nose. Where should I go? What should I do? And I just thought to myself, go to the health center. Why are you here? ere, you know, but that I mean, I didn’t say that, of course. But I was just like, you know, I think the best thing you could do is go to the health center. But what made me really touched by that moment is that that’s what we were for them. We were their family. And so if anything was wrong, even as simple as like my nose is bleeding, where do I go that. They felt safe, they felt welcome and they felt love. They felt like they mattered. And so I feel like that’s the biggest lesson I have taken away about what comes first, like what I worry about the quality of many things that we offer our students. I really do think about relationships and loving and caring for students at the most basic human level. If we treat them like they matter because we really believe that, they feel it. And I think that helps them thrive in everything else that they’re trying to navigate in college.

Amit Savkar:
That’s so true and so true. It is sometimes real students treat us as family and expect the response that one would have in a family. So that’s that’s a very well said. So just as a closing thought, can you share the best way for our listeners to connect with you if they want to continue the conversation?

Milagros Castillo-Montoya:
Yeah. So I think the best way to connect with me is through email. That’s probably the best way, even though I might be sometimes slow in me having to email it is the best way to reach me, especially now with all the distance learning and my email address is my name in full. So it’s Milagros M I L A G R O S dot Castillo C A S T I L L O hyphen Montoya M O N T O Y A at Uconn.edu.That would be the best way to reach me.

Amit Savkar:
Thank you so much, Milagros. I really appreciate you taking the time to having a conversation on such an important topic that we all, as a community of educators are facing today. And I hope that you continue to have conversations in the future. Thank you so much.

Milagros Castillo-Montoya:
Thank you. This has been great. Thank you.

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Today’s Guest: Dr. Milagros Montoya-Castillo

Milagros is an Assistant Professor in Higher Education in the Department of Education Leadership in the Neag School of Education of UConn.

Her research focuses on the equitable experiences and outcomes for racially minorities and historically underserved college students. Castillo-Montoya primarily studies teaching and learning in classrooms with racially and ethnically diverse college students with a particular focus on the experiences of black and Latino first generation college students. She has published on teaching and learning and the experiences of racially diverse college students and faculty and various academic journals, including the Review of Higher Education, Harvard Education Review, Teaching in Higher Education, and the Review of Educational Research, among other outlets.

Key Take-Aways:

  • Sustained professional development is absolutely necessary.
  • Treat students like they matter because they feel it, and it helps them navigate everything else that they’re trying to navigate in college.
  • Caring for students is not enough. It is necessary but not enough. The care and the love must be visible in our practices and our policies and in the structures that we create and sustain.

 

Resources:

https://education.uconn.edu/person/milagros-castillo-montoya/

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