Finding strengths

Students from marginalized backgrounds bring strengths to schools that are rarely acknowledged as assets. Ph.D. student Jovani Azpeitia
is looking to change that.

When Jovani Azpeitia hears people talk about education inequities, he often hears students of color or those from low-income backgrounds talked about through a deficit lens: what they don’t know and what they can’t do.

What he rarely hears is how these students have unique strengths and resiliencies that their white or wealthier peers might not.

Azpeitia is a doctoral student in social psychology at UW, studying how cultural environments can perpetuate negative stereotypes. But he wants to show the other side of the story: that the experiences of students from marginalized backgrounds are an asset, and educating teachers and principals about this could transform schools.

Jovani stands in a graduation hat and cape with his mom, dad, and brother

Azpeitia and his family at his undergraduate graduation from Pomona College in 2019 (photo taken pre-COVID-19)

“If you continue to use this Eurocentric view as the default, then of course you’re always going to look at Black and Latinx students through a deficit lens,” Azpeitia said. “But if you center these students, their experiences, and their culture, you see they bring a lot to the table that their white peers may not be able to.”

In conducting his research on student strengths, Azpeitia is tapping into his own: the strength of his perspective as a first-generation, Latinx student.

For years, he’s observed how the strengths of his culture are devalued in the U.S. school system. Teachers might assume that not having English spoken at home is a disadvantage, or that if parents don’t chaperone events, it means they don’t care about education.

The repercussions of this deficit mindset were that Azpeitia was sometimes the only student of color in his honors or advanced classes. While Black and Latinx students make up 37 percent of students in high schools, only 27 percent are enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course, the US Department of Education found.

But this was in contrast to Azpeitia’s own experience: the importance the Latinx community places on education.

He thinks of his own parents, and the sacrifices they made moving from Mexico to the U.S. for their children’s future. He thinks of his dad, who wears his University of Washington gear and proudly tells his coworkers that both of his sons attended UW. He thinks of how the Latinx community celebrates students who chase their goals, go to college, and become role models for younger siblings.

“There’s a lot of systemic explanations behind language barriers, behind not being able to take time off work,” Azpeitia said. “It’s not that Latinx parents don’t care about their child’s education, it’s that they are showing it in different ways that historically have not been recognized or appreciated by schools and the education system.”

seven people stand with their arms around each other, Jovani third from left.

Azpeitia with members of his research lab from Pomona College in 2018 (photo taken pre-COVID-19)

Azpeitia’s upbringing has given him the unique perspective of seeing the world through multiple identities. He was born in Washington, but moved to Mexico with his family at the age of five, where the majority of students in his classes looked like him. Moving back to the US in fourth grade, he started attending predominantly white suburban schools in Kirkland, WA, where he grappled with suddenly being one of a handful of Latinx students.

This struggle sparked his interest in what happens when people feel represented in a space versus feeling like the only one.

This also helped him realize that having access to capital is what separated his experience in the U.S. education system from his Latinx peers. While his parents didn’t graduate high school, Azpeitia’s white friends leaned on their college-educated parents’ knowledge to navigate the college application system, and shared that knowledge with Azpeitia. He and his friends scheduled tours of college campuses across Washington state and navigated the applications together.

GSEE Fellow

Some of the support Azpeitia has found at UW comes from GSEE, a Graduate School program which supports BIPOC graduate students, and gave Azpeitia the Graduate Excellence Award fellowship.

Azpeitia has found that the further he’s advanced in academia, the whiter it becomes, so having both funding and a community for BIPOC students underscores a commitment to breaking some of the barriers he and his peers face.

“To have an office that very explicitly communicates that you as a BIPOC graduate student are seen and appreciated and supported, that is so instrumental to my emotional wellbeing here at UW,” he said.

Attending Pomona College and studying psychology helped Azpeitia finally understand why systemic inequities were leaving students of color behind. There, he was encouraged to use his strengths and experiences as a Latinx student to study this.

One conversation in particular changed everything. Azpeitia met a retiring psychology professor of Chicano/Latino studies, Raymond Buriel, who asked Azpeitia a few questions about himself. Buriel then started listing off the obligations Azpeitia must feel to his family, his responsibilities, his fears.

Azpeitia presenting his senior thesis at Pomona College (photo taken pre-COVID-19)

Azpeitia was startled by how much Buriel understood about his life in that brief conversation. Then, Buriel said something that Azpeitia never forgot, that he wrote down and to this day puts in the places he works for motivation:

“There are people out there who look like us and study people like us,” Buriel said. “Your experiences matter, otherwise I wouldn’t be researching them.”

Azpeitia had heard the term “mesearch,” a criticism used mainly by white researchers toward researchers of color, for studying a topic inspired by their personal experiences (as though the lens of whiteness is the only “neutral” way of studying the world). But this conversation empowered Azpeitia to study the issues he cared most about, that his perspective in academia wasn’t just important, but necessary.

After graduation but before graduate school, he worked for a college access program serving fellow Latinx students. He saw the community’s needs were immediate: food insecurity, stable housing, and for some, the threat of deportation. These dwarfed problems that some researchers said were a priority for Latinx communities, like hitting certain education benchmarks. From that, he learned that research has to be in conversation with communities.

Jovani holds cake that says "thank you Jovani" as he sits with group of people around table outside. Trees in background.

Azpeitia celebrates the end of his lab manager position in August 2021 with his research lab and graduate students in UW Psychology.

“I view science as a collaborative process in that we are working toward the ultimate goal of bettering society, and increasing our understanding of the human experience. But how can you do that if certain people are not at the table to provide their input?” he said.

After working as a lab manager for a year in Professor Sapna Cheryan’s Stereotypes, Identity, and Belonging Lab, Azpeitia joined as a doctoral student in 2021.

Empowering other Latinx students to study the topics that build on their strengths, that are close to their hearts, is something Azpeitia also wants to give during his time in academia.

“I want to provide spaces for other students who may feel they don’t have a place in psychology or research more broadly,” he said. “You do belong here; there’s a place for you, if you want it. You may receive pushback and there are many obstacles to overcome, but there is space and a small community of us within academia and we’re going to work together to make sure everyone succeeds.”

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Recipient

Azpeitia received the prestigious federal NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which supports graduate students pursuing STEM degrees. Azpeitia’s advisor, Professor Sapna Cheryan, encouraged him to apply, and was able to give valuable feedback on his own application.

The application was rigorous, and Azpeitia spent every day for two months working on it. But it helped to find others who were also going through the grind of completing the application, both for emotional support, as the students questioned whether their ideas were worth all this work, as well as to review and give feedback to each other.

It was also helpful to Azpeitia to look at past applications for the award, which he found through his psychology program. That way he could see what constituted a successful application.

“No one goes into the fellowship thinking they’ll for sure get it,” Azpeitia said, so he recommends students try even if they’re slightly interested. The fellowship also lets students apply a second time for funding, if they apply for the first time the same cycle they’re applying to graduate school, and provides feedback to students on their first application so they have a better shot the next time around.


By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School

Published Dec. 7, 2021