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PhD student Caleb Gonzalez acknowledged by Vice President Kamala Harris for his endeavors in the field of writing education

September 5, 2023

PhD student Caleb Gonzalez acknowledged by Vice President Kamala Harris for his endeavors in the field of writing education

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Earlier this year, PhD student Caleb Gonzalez wrote a letter to Vice President Kamala D. Harris about how his students in the Young Scholars Program used writing to examine topics related to K-12 education. The VP’s office published his letter in their weekly newsletter and Vice President Harris invited Gonzalez to a celebration of Día de las Madres, Mother’s Day, at her home in Washington DC. Gonzalez speaks about his experience at the house of the Vice President as well as how it allowed him to reflect on his teaching.  

What does your PhD research focus on? How does it relate to your teaching of English 1110?   

My research originates from a particular First-Year Composition course I taught in spring 2017 at Colorado State University. This course came after a tumultuous and consequential 2016 presidential election where I observed an interest among many of my students to examine harmful and destructive anti-immigrant rhetoric that was showing up on our very campus (e.g., “speak English” confrontations in dining halls and Nazi symbols appearing on dorm buildings).  

I was still learning how to navigate the course, and I took it as a chance to learn the writing curriculum with students. However, when one student asked if, for her essay that intended to challenge the myth that immigrants are “taking” U.S. jobs, she could incorporate interviews with family members who are agricultural workers in Colorado, I took it as an opportunity to reflect with students on how I, as a teacher who has also had agricultural workers in my own family, can further understand what it means to bring our knowledges, backgrounds, histories, languages and learning assets to the act of writing. 

Today, my research is in the spirit of that original inquiry, but it is now more at the programmatic level and at the intersection of two fields called Writing Program Administration and Higher Education Studies. My work identifies a specific type of Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) called Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) and emerging Hispanic-Serving Institutions (eHSIs), which are defined as colleges with an enrollment of either 15%-24.999% Hispanic students (eHSIs) or 25% or higher (HSIs).  

My research is about how First-Year Writing Programs at HSIs and eHSIs both shape and are shaped by this significant yet complex racialized institutional identity, including what it really means to support students through meaningful and impactful programmatic practices that are designed with frameworks of equity, inclusion and social change. I’m interested in First-Year Composition since many FYC programs are often positioned to have a wide reach through their General Education curriculum. At the same time, HSIs and emerging HSIs have experienced a significant growth in the United States and Puerto Rico. For example, according to Excelencia in Education, they represent a combined 32% of all colleges and universities (HSIs represent 19% and eHSIs represent 13%) with a current enrollment of over 1.37 million Latinx undergraduates.  

What prompted you to write to the VP in the first place?  

In autumn 2022, I was invited to teach a section of English 1110 for the Young Scholars Program (YSP) in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at The Ohio State University. In this course, there was a majority of Black, Latinx and Asian American students who came to Ohio State from Columbus and other cities/towns in Ohio. Because of my educational studies interest, the theme I developed for the course was Representations of K-12 Education.   

I knew there was a lot that students would bring to the study of writing and K-12 education. However, I was still blown away by the projects they ended up doing. As I conferenced with students and provided feedback to them, I observed a general trend that many of their topics were contextualized by a national midterm election and larger political discourse on topics like infrastructure legislation, book banning, attacks on critical race theory and African American studies programs, threatening LGBTQIA+ rights and the very state of democracy. For example, one student interviewed a former Black female educator at her high school and integrated her interview into her research project on what it means to design educational structures that support greater numbers of emerging Black female educators. Another student wrote a proposal advocating for funding the National School Lunch Program. Another student wrote about LGBTQIA+ frameworks for more-inclusive sex education in public schools.  

I didn’t know if a letter to the Vice President would ultimately reach her, but regardless, I wanted to highlight some of the topics my students had written about with an audience outside of the university and one that was directly involved in the highest levels of government. I thought “why not let our federally elected officials know that our students are paying attention to what’s going on? Why not let them know how they’re using writing to think through these issues and advocate for what needs to change?” I felt like that mattered because I know that rhetoric and writing can be powerful, especially right now. I also took it as an opportunity to process, frankly, for myself and my own teaching development, the meaning of the semester given the work my students did. I wanted to reflect on how I could step up my own teaching if I’m serious about writing pedagogy and studying practices of writing programs toward equity, inclusion and social change.  

How was your experience at the VP’s house? What were some of the highlights or surprises?  

It was a fantastic experience. I was invited to the Día de las Madres Celebration at the home of Vice President Harris and Second Gentleman Emhoff. I was surprised to see that it was a small crowd and one that Vice President Harris had personally worked with her Social Office to invite.  

During the event, the Vice President spoke about the strength of immigrant mothers and Latina mothers and the dreams they bring, especially with their children in this country. Her speech was a reflection on what it means to create policies that center humans within immigration discourse and the ways in which the country has benefited from the presence and contribution of Latina women and their children. Before she spoke, she invited a mother and close friend to speak about her experiences in advocating for a better life for herself and her daughters – one of whom is an intern for the Vice President.  

During the speeches, I thought about my own grandmother, Guillermina Velasco Gonzalez, who came to the United States with my grandfather with the wish that her children would graduate from high school. My grandmother passed away in 2002, but I couldn’t help but think abuela would be doing backflips to see the opportunities have been opened for her family.  

This is a major milestone. How will this experience impact your teaching of English 1110?  

I’m not sure I have a complete answer for this question yet, mostly because this is something that I think I’ll come to understand over time. But what I can say is that this experience affirms my belief in rhetoric and writing as profound actions that can not only be things, but that can do things. It requires responsibility from students, teachers, program administrators, etc., to listen and lean into how our students are engaging writing courses and how we are engaging students and what we do or do not “count” as best practices of first-year writing.  

It has also impacted the way I reflect on my own teaching. In this specific instance, I had a hunch that I couldn’t name at the time, which is why I wrote a letter. I wanted to think through what I had observed the previous semester. My students were writing about really powerful things, about education from a wide range of perspectives and positionalities. Their writing was deeply tied to national issues that they identified as impactful to their lives. They were using writing to connect the local to the national and vice versa. That’s quite a profound act of writing if you think about it! 

So, this experience shapes the extent to which I will reflect on what students are writing and my own responsibility to continue creating opportunities for them not only to succeed but to understand the role they have – through their voices – in shaping discourse at the local level and, yes, at the national level. That’s quite an idealistic perspective, but that’s how I feel.  

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