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“I’ve Lived Everything They Are Trying to Teach Me”: Latinx Immigrant Youth’s Ambivalent Educational Mobility in White Evangelical Universities

Department of Education, Brown University, Box 1938, Providence, RI 02192, USA
Soc. Sci. 2023, 12(1), 7;
Submission received: 15 November 2022 / Revised: 18 December 2022 / Accepted: 21 December 2022 / Published: 23 December 2022


Undocumented Latinx youth in Tennessee envision higher education as the single pathway to enable their upward economic and social mobility. Many of these young people enroll in private, historically white, Evangelical Christian colleges that provide financial support otherwise unavailable to undocumented youth. At the same time, university actors struggle to meet students’ other needs as undocumented and minoritized individuals. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork, I demonstrate how youth struggle with the hidden personal costs of educational access and the upward mobility it promises. Most significantly, Latinx immigrant youth must navigate the tensions between the ever-present legacy of racial segregation and animus in Evangelical traditions and their status as the embodiment of newfound, institutionally desirable “diversity.” As these students negotiate deeply racialized social and academic orders, they grow ambivalent about the promises of educational mobility, particularly if that mobility is contingent upon conforming to “respectable” forms of diversity. Centering youth’s ambivalence reveals both the contingent value of educational mobility to those experiencing it and the limits of university policies intended to increase educational access.

1. Introduction

Lunchtime was approaching at Hickory Heights High.1 Liz, the coordinator of Succeeders, informed me that some students might drop by. Succeeders was the college access program for Latinx students in Nashville, Tennessee where I was conducting my research. Liz and I were largely left alone in the classroom where we had posted up—though a trickle of students, or Succeeders, popped in for quick hellos. No one had opted to eat with us, until slight Alondra came in with her underfilled tray.
I didn’t know Alondra well, except for the fact that she was very conscientious—being one of the first students to return her consent form to me for my research. Liz asked Alondra to show me her senior scrapbook. Alondra dutifully took it out, flipping through childhood photos as I cooed at her toddler self. We got to the picture of her in a cap and gown at her kindergarten graduation. Alondra broke down, grabbing a pitiful one-ply napkin from her tray. She was about to graduate for real, but she wouldn’t be able to go to college. Her undocumented status had been blunted by her receipt of DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—which enabled a renewable stay of deportation and a work permit. However, both the DACAmented and undocumented remained federal and state aid ineligible, rendering the cost of college untenable.
Such breakdowns were common as undocumented students faced the pending dissolution of their educational goals (see Abrego 2006; Gonzales 2011; Flores 2016). Alondra rebounded from her passing tears and informed us she had a meeting with the admissions officer at Baldwin College. Baldwin, an Evangelical Christian college, privately funded high-achieving undocumented students. By Evangelical college, I mean higher educational institutions affiliated with an Evangelical Protestant denomination that are not/not only seminaries.2 Schools like Baldwin were created to place Evangelical theology at the fore of both the curriculum and campus life in order to train student-believers toward a life of grace and Christian service.
Following her controlled meltdown, Alondra and I grew closer. She was able to secure additional scholarship money from Baldwin and from another private scholarship for undocumented students. Alondra and I have met for meals and coffee since her high school graduation—catching up on nursing school woes, her meteoric rise from bagger to manager in a few months at the Publix Supermarket near my in-laws, and, most recently, her job as a registered nurse.
During her senior year at Baldwin, I formally interviewed Alondra about her collegiate experience. The transition from Hickory Heights High, a majority-minoritized secondary school, to Baldwin, a predominantly white institution (PWI), was “a cultural shock.” However, that shock didn’t deter her: “I knew what I was there for. I was there to go school and get good grades and do my thing.” As a practicing Catholic, Alondra also had to get used to the idiosyncrasies of the school’s religious practices, like the prohibition of musical instruments at chapel services.3 Alondra was well-connected to the small Latinx community at Baldwin, which was almost entirely composed of former Succeeders. While she kept her eye on the prize of her degree, she “wish[ed] there was a better community for Latino students [at Baldwin].” She partially blamed the school, reluctantly admitting “I don’t want to say that Baldwin maybe pushes us to the side, but—just did a little bit better of a job of making it feel like home.” When evaluating how Baldwin met her needs as a first-generation, DACAMented, Latinx college student, Alondra saw its value, but was torn on the school’s broader ability to serve her friends and classmates well: “I love the school. I didn’t mind it, but maybe for other students, they might have minded it more.”
Education-enabled mobility often appears—in practice, scholarship, and media—as an unvarnished social good. Education creates the opportunity to join the middle class and the assumed ease it brings. However, in Alondra and others’ experiences, educational mobility’s contingent personal and familial value, the immense effort needed to sustain this value, and the limits of higher educational institutions are evident. One’s university can be supportive and alienating at the same time—it can be, as it was for Alondra, an object of “love,” but still not a “home.”
Recent scholarship has examined the psychic costs of being minoritized and undocumented at PWIs (Smedley et al. 1993; Stebleton and Aleixo 2015; Robinson-Perez 2021). However, not all PWIs are the same. Evangelical Christian colleges are both at the forefront of providing access to undocumented students, but also uniquely unprepared for inclusion on campus compared to other PWIs, given what scholars characterize as the divisive racial and social politics baked into the socially conservative and white-dominated Evangelical movement (Emerson and Smith 2000; A. Smith 2019; Hawkins 2021). Inclusion on campus also takes on more complex meanings—as universal salvation under God is pitted against hardened socio-political conservatism when it comes to immigration, sexuality, and racial injustice. The more extreme example of the Evangelical PWI magnifies the painful parts of educational mobility for Latinx undocumented students at PWIs broadly. It can also reveal how these youth make sense of the limits of educational mobility and remake the educational institutions that purport to enable it.
In this article, I explore how DACAmented and undocumented Latinx youth, like Alondra, managed and made sense of educational mobility in Evangelical PWIs that have only recently embraced diversity as an institutional goal. Theoretical frames for understating minoritized immigrants’ upward mobility emphasize racialized expectations—ranging from assimilation into whiteness (Portes and Zhou 1993) to participation in “minority cultures of mobility” that sit alongside the culture of the white middle class (Vallejo 2012, p. 669; see also Pan and Reyes 2021). Youth strategically utilize both these strategies for “making good” in school and into the middle class, but these strategies can leave students feeling ambivalent about their educational institutions and educational mobility predicated on racialized social and academic expectations. I also demonstrate how, to reclaim educational mobility’s value, youth seek to dismantle the whiteness embedded in university bureaucracy through acts of solidarity and calls for administrative change that more fully integrates their racially, and legally, marked identities. Collectively, these strategies reflect how youth find educational mobility to have a contingent personal value, even if it may result in future upward socio-economic status. Moreover, youth’s experiences in recently diversifying universities demonstrate the gaps between administrative commitments to student diversity and the institutional infrastructure to serve students like Alondra well.
To contextualize these findings, I outline the scholarship on educational mobility and the racial expectations embedded within it, my methods, and the broader ethnographic circumstances of Evangelical PWIs in the New South. Shifting to the ethnographic, I examine how youth managed everyday difficulties embedded in their educational trajectories. To find the belonging on campus needed in order to persist in school, students created minoritized mobility-supporting environments through the creation of formal and informal “counterspaces,” or supportive sites for minoritized, Latinx, and/or undocumented students on campus (Solórzano et al. 2000; see also Reyes 2018; Pan and Reyes 2021). Next, I show how in the classroom students’ efforts were more circumscribed, as differences celebrated in the counterspace were questioned in the classroom. They often had to make accommodations for whiteness and citizenship status as a way to make it through higher education toward hoped-for better futures. In both campus life and coursework, students recognized the limits of their strategies to get by and are left conflicted by the costs of becoming “educated.”
I then turn to how youth sought to rework their institutions and retain educational mobility’s collective value in moments of hostile racial/immigration campus climate. Here, youth’s efforts often went beyond the counterspace and classroom to making demands for increased inclusion of difference in the white-dominated spaces of university governance. They also reasserted educational mobility’s status as a shared and co-produced social good through acts of solidarity. I conclude by considering what centering youth’s experiences, quotidian and spectacular, mean for broader theoretical models of educational mobility and university policies.

2. Educational Mobility: Strategies of Race and Class(es)

Historically, frameworks for understanding minoritized immigrants’ successful upward mobility rest on their wholesale or selective assimilation into middle-class, Anglo-Protestant whiteness (Park 1950; Gordon 1964; Gibson 1988; Portes and Zhou 1993; Waters and Jiménez 2005).4 Many scholarly measures of mobility—like residence near and intermarriage with whites—implicitly or explicitly prioritize the individual’s movement into white spaces and whiteness itself (see Drouhot and Nee 2019). Additionally, implicit in measures of upward mobility is a focus on markers of adulthood (marriage, work, and property). One of the first indicators of mobility—higher educational attainment—is largely the purview of youth who must manage white supremacy and nativism embedded in the structure of education systems and the softer maintenance of native white elites’ dominance in the classroom and on campus (Bourdieu and Passeron [1970] 1990; Oakes 1985; Hurtado 1992; Suárez-Orozco et al. 2008; Gándara and Contreras 2009; Jack 2019).
The recent “rhetorical” commitment to diversity in educational administration has not translated to the reduction of racial inequality in college access, increased racial harmony on campus, or the elimination of the strains caused by racial stereotyping that can inhibit minoritized, immigrant, and undocumented students’ success (Urciuoli 2016; Smedley et al. 1993; Stebleton and Aleixo 2015; Robinson-Perez 2021). Thus, higher educational attainment, and the mobility it promises, remain predicated on individual youth’s access to historically white-controlled, white-serving institutions that ultimately reward, and expect, whiteness and citizen status.5 Moreover, for undocumented students, or those with precarious documentation like DACA, their feelings of belonging and academic success on campus are deeply impacted by layers of context both within and beyond their campuses such as local policing (Legewie et al. 2022) and the municipal, state, and national policy environments (Golash-Boza and Valdez 2018). Increased diversity in higher education may mean that students like the Succeeders might not have to assimilate into whiteness or have to be citizens but they often have to accommodate within their classrooms, campuses, and local contexts.
While education-enabled mobility is constrained in terms of class, race, citizenship status, and gender, it is often still achieved—as it was for Alondra.6 Undocumented and/or immigrant youth often maintain persistent aspirations for high achievement rooted in collective commitments—be it family obligations or protective notions of ethno-racial identity that can help propel higher educational attainment (Kao and Tienda 1998; Louie 2004; R. Smith 2006; Kasinitz 2008; Dreby and Stutz 2012). For immigrant youth, there are added dimensions to familial obligation—what Smith refers to as the immigrant bargain, where the children of immigrants succeed in school to make good on the parental sacrifice of migration, stigmatized or undocumented migration, and often low-wage and low status work in the US (Louie 2004; R. Smith 2006). Moreover, these youth will often position their educational success as dependent, and shared with, their families and social networks (Flores 2021). In this way, educational success is invested with not only a feeling of deep familial and collective commitment, but serves as proof of migration’s collective value to one’s loved ones. Moreover, despite their many exclusions, educational institutions can also be welcoming spaces that aid racially marked and undocumented students’ upward mobility.7 To achieve this mobility, minoritized, immigrant-origin, and/or undocumented students learn how to manage the limitations of institutions largely not built for them, their peers, or their collective success.
Ample scholarship notes that campus belonging and inclusion, or the feeling of mattering to and having a place within the academic and social spaces of schools, are critical for minoritized students’ success in higher education (Goodenow 1993; Hurtado and Carter 1997; Strayhorn [2012] 2019). One of the main sites of belonging is in the “counterspace,” that is, physical and social locations where “deficit notions of people of color can be challenged and where a positive collegiate racial climate can be established and maintained” (Solórzano et al. 2000, p. 7). These counterspaces, often formalized identity centers on PWI campuses, support difference and provide the educational mobility version of what Vallejo observed regarding minoritized ways of being middle class and of achieving that class status (Yosso and Lopez 2010; Suárez-Orozco et al. 2015; Reyes 2018; Cisneros and Valdivia 2020).8 However, as Alondra pointed out, well-developed, institutionalized identity centers do not exist equally on every campus. Moreover, as other students’ experiences demonstrate, the counterspace can magnify how minoritized students, across intersecting racial, class, gender, and citizenship identities, are set apart from dominant campus culture (Valdez and Golash-Boza 2020).
Educational mobility is a process that requires accommodating whiteness and citizenship through Latinx students adjusting their comportment, language, and identities to the expectations of white peers and professors in order to succeed and survive schooling. It also takes the form of following the “minority…pathway into the middle class,” that is, pursuing educational mobility through maintaining connections to their communities and families while seeking individual achievement (Vallejo 2012, p. 699). At the same time, youth attempted to remake the white controlled institution as fully their own, and in the process, to both reclaim the collective meanings of educational mobility and reduce the individual injuries that occur when becoming educated into upward mobility. Youth do so by making demands for change to the university’s extant white-facing infrastructure and through individual acts of solidarity as a nonwhite student. In this way, mobility is tied—in counterspaces and majority spaces alike—to the fullness of students’ identities, their relational commitments, and university structures.

3. Materials and Methods

Alondra’s experience recounted in the introduction reflects the longitudinal approach of this research. The materials presented here stem from my initial ethnographic research project (2012–2013) examining how youth participating in Succeeders made their way out of high school and into college (See Flores 2021, pp. 22–27). For that project, my main method was participant observation, where the researcher both observes and takes part in the daily comings and goings of their research participants within the site. I conducted participant observation within the college access program, in students’ school activities (at graduations, tailgates, and school plays), and in the broader social lives of students. I also conducted a demographic survey and collected the materials students create and collect in the process of becoming college ready, such as admissions essays, college marketing materials, and the Succeeders curriculum. While much of this work was within the entire Succeeders population, I also narrowed my focus through intensively following 31 focal students with whom I conducted person-centered interviews (one-to-four hours in duration). These students were demographically representative of the Succeeders program, as assessed from the demographic survey, students’ self-disclosures, and my observations. The focal students were mostly Mexican or Central American in familial origin; slightly more female than male; a mix of average, high, and low academic achievers; and about half were undocumented.
Following the year of fieldwork, my project then transitioned into long-term follow-up with almost all students. This follow-up included formal interviews with about seventy-percent of students between 2015–2017, collecting their feedback on my preliminary research findings (all students initially; ad hoc since), and messaging through emails, the phone, and social media from 2013 to now. I also continued to be present in students’ broader lives—attending weddings, meeting new babies, celebrating new jobs over dinner whenever I was in town (about 3 times a year). As their lives developed, some Succeeders moved away or drifted away into the recesses of young adulthood. I have respected those boundaries and continue to be present, both personally and in research capacities, with students as they see fit into their adulthood.
As I learned about the Succeeders’ collegiate experiences, I began a “new” project focused on the subset of students who attended Evangelical Christian colleges in Nashville. I conducted interviews with these students (n = 10) on shorter term trips in 2015 through 2018. All ten students were DACAmented and had resided in the US since early childhood. Three participants were male, seven female and the majority were Mexican in national origin (five Mexican, three Central American, two Columbian). These students were all very high achievers in high school, defined by their grades, test scores, and the metrics for admission to these colleges. Thus, while all former Succeeders, there were key differences in academic achievement levels that enabled these students to access these more selective institutions. I also interviewed the student support staff, program directors, diversity officers, and admissions officers at several of these Evangelical PWIs. Participant observation continued in the lives of Succeeders students. While my findings are based on the larger trajectories of students’ experiences, I primarily draw here on data collected between 2015–2018.
Analysis of all data followed an inductive, iterative approach with thematic coding conducted by hand (Glaser and Strauss 1967). The corpus of data analyzed included: (1) the interview transcripts from the ten focal students; (2) transcripts from interviews with six administrators working within or with the universities; (3) fieldnotes from public structured events or more casual interactions with focal students on the campuses; (4) fieldnotes from the prior project that were related to these Evangelical colleges such as tours of the campuses. I began the iterative coding process by randomly selecting one artifact from each data type and reading for themes, generating a large initial codebook. These codes ranged from topical terms like “professors,” “chapel services,” toward more abstract ones like “Included by religious elements.” I then refined the codes through re-reading the initial sample of data plus a new fieldnote and student transcript. I did not conduct any reliability testing due to the epistemological precepts of anthropological work, namely that the knowledge created is highly contextual and situated in the shared experience of ethnographic data collection. In both projects, I presented emerging findings, papers-in-progress, and my arguments to the Succeeders, asking them questions like “what is missing here from my analysis? What parts do you disagree with?” These sessions were productive in honing my findings and providing new directions for my analysis, but also in co-thinking with youth about their newfound mobility as it unfolded over time. While this research all occurred in Nashville—a city I had grown to know quite well—the Evangelical PWI was new to me. I now outline the general contours of this space as well as the two focal Evangelical PWIs Succeeders attended.

4. Learning at God’s Colleges in Music City

Angel hadn’t been able to go on the Baldwin tour with the Succeeders, so I offered to go with him on one of their regular Saturday morning tours. On a sunny spring morning, a tired Angel met me along with prospective students, parents, and our earnest tour guide, Tom from small-town South Carolina. As we approached the office tasked with planning the school-sponsored mission trips, Tom’s patter turned to the topic of diversity. When he got to Baldwin, he had the opposite culture shock that Alondra had. He was amazed at the diversity on campus. Tom, who was white, loved meeting people from different races, states and countries, and even different religions. Outside the office was a pole with colorful arrows highlighting the school’s mission sites and their distance from Nashville. As we shuffled forward to the next office, Angel pointed to the arrow for Guatemala—his birth nation. He whispered that if he went to Baldwin the missionaries could stay put, as there would be a Guatemalan right here.
Angel’s quip pointed to the demographic reality that Evangelical PWIs in the “New South” were facing. Long dedicated to proselytizing and service in foreign countries, recent increased international migration to the Southeast has made the cities and towns in which many of these Evangelical PWIs are located more demographically diverse. For example, Nashville’s population went from 2% foreign born to 13% between 2000 and 2012, (Mayor’s Office of New Americans n.d.; Hance 2017). In 2014, the majority of those immigrants were from Africa (9.3%), Asia (28.7%), and, most significantly, Latin America (47.8%) (US Census Bureau 2014). This changing local context resulted in a changed local student body.
Universities increasingly tout their diverse campuses as a selling point to applicants—as Tom did on the tour (Urciuoli 2003, 2016). Recruiting minoritized students can also open up new streams of tuition revenue in a competitive market for students (Grawe 2018). At Christian colleges, attending to diversity is increasingly common for both reasons (Cross and Slater 2004; Pérez 2013; Hoey 2021).9 This outreach effort is also rooted in theological precepts as “seeking change in the area of diversity is a biblical concept that must be pursued” as a mission of Christian higher education (Pérez 2013, p. 21; see Ash and Schreiner 2016, pp. 52–54 for explication of biblical evidence). This mission is relatively recent. Since the 1990s, there have been shifts in the white Evangelical movement away from blatant racial hostility toward “racial reconciliation” with communities of color (A. Smith 2019). In particular, there has been outreach to those in the racial middle through higher education (Bracey and Moore 2017; see also Alumkal 2004).
These institutions could limit ethno-racial diversity to the citizen or documented applicant. However, the commitment to diversity has extended to support for undocumented students on campus in the form of admissions, aid, and sometimes other support structures like tailored mentoring and counseling.10 There are two other reasons beyond those described above undergirding support for undocumented students. The first is the growing, youthful demographic presence of Latinx and Asian individuals within—and buoying—the US Evangelical movement.11 These two groups tend to have a more favorable view of immigration (see Wong 2019). More broadly, since the 1970s Latin America has become a growing site of Evangelical Christianity. Like their US counterparts, Latin American Evangelicals are often tied to conservative political ideologies, providing affinity between Latinx immigrant Evangelicals and elements of US ones (de la Torre and Martín 2016; Garrard 2020). These affinities may make Evangelical colleges attractive to immigrant, Latinx Evangelicals despite differences in nationality, race, and ethnicity. The second reason is a continued commitment within Christian higher education to a theology of hospitality and “welcoming the stranger” that characterized some of the broader Evangelical movement’s position on undocumented immigration until the 1990s, though the nativist strain of the movement has been historically strong (Stockhausen 2021). The more undocumented-inclusive view is prominent among elites, potentially reflecting the status of certain university or higher education administrators (Melkonian-Hoover and Kellstedt 2019, p. 45; Wong 2019, p. 413). For example, five presidents of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, a leading and large consortium of Protestant higher education institutions, have supported undocumented students publicly through calling for a legislative path to citizenship for undocumented youth.12
Yet, there are limits to diversity. The broader mission of Evangelical higher education is to “offer protective grounding in traditional Christian values through curricula that typically include Christian morality, religion, and biblical knowledge” (Bailey and Strunk 2018, p. 484 italics original). This “grounding” can be interpreted in varied ways—from the inclusive DEI efforts that align with ‘welcoming the stranger’ to the approach I heard championed by one instructor in the psychology department at Cana who taught Freud from “a Christian perspective.” Most notably, many Evangelical colleges have Title IX exemptions allowing prohibitions around same-sex sexual orientation and nonbinary gender presentations (Ross 2016). Many colleges also have student conduct rules that prohibit alcohol use, smoking, the use of pornography, and sexual contact outside of what Baldwin’s handbook calls the “biblical standards of sexual morality”—meaning homosexual sexual relationships and heterosexual ones outside of marriage. Breaking these prohibitions can result in disciplinary action including expulsion or the withholding of an otherwise earned degree. Sexual and gender morality—particularly around LGBTQAI+ identities—is a main site of contestation between progressive and conservatives within Evangelicalism and within its colleges. Largely, the “most common middle-ground” regarding LGBTQAI+ students is to “love the sinner; hate the sin” which “reflects a stance of embracing individuals while rejecting their identities and/or sexual behavior as unacceptable, even abhorrent” (Bailey and Strunk 2018, p. 485).
With shifts to the student body’s demographics, Evangelical college administrators have had to consider what it means to support diverse learners toward degree completion. For some schools, access has been the main and only focus, rather than attending to issues of positive campus climate, student belonging, and other measures known to influence success (Pérez 2013, p. 24). Part of the reason for failing to contend with climate and student belonging relates to extant university infrastructure, e.g., lack of staff/faculty of color, dearth of identity centers (Ash and Schreiner 2016; Ash et al. 2017). From my observations at Baldwin and Cana University, another local Evangelical institution, there are promising efforts to remake both as more inclusive. Some efforts are passive ones “celebrating” diversity (cf. Ash et al. 2017). Others are more tangible like the disbursement of financial aid to undocumented students (Flores 2016). Support for LGBTQAI+ students is the most limited effort (Bailey and Strunk 2018, p. 485; see Glanzer et al. 2022 for an example).
The limitations on support for diverse students goes beyond the proximate causes of campus infrastructure and toward Evangelical Christianity’s long entangled history with segregation, nativism, white supremacy, and social conservatism.13 In its recent history, Southern white Evangelicals—including those who attended both Baldwin and Cana—were a critical component of the opposition to educational desegregation (Dupont 2015; Hawkins 2021). Some Evangelicals continue to be active organizing against immigration, racism, and LGBTQAI+ rights (see A. Smith 2019, pp. 104–10, 229–34). Since the 1990s, simultaneous with racial reconciliation, there has been a shift among non-elite and laity White Evangelicals to condemn undocumented, and even documented, migration in a much more hardline way aligned with shifts in the stance of the Republican party (Stockhausen 2021). Most directly relevant here is Evangelical support for Trump, the Muslim ban, and a Southern border wall (Stockhausen 2021; Wong 2019, p. 413).14 However, younger white Evangelicals seem to buck this trend and tend to be more progressive on immigration and other social issues, including LGBTQAI+ rights (Stockhausen 2021, p. 273; Melkonian-Hoover and Kellstedt 2019, pp. 105–6).
Emerson and Smith (2000) and Tranby and Hartmann (2008) argue that the underlying patterns of white supremacist thought within the white Evangelical movement leads to limited understandings of racism and a reluctance to address structural inequalities predicated on race, and I argue, citizenship. Tensions have also emerged between these oppositional strands of white Evangelical conservatism—older anti-immigrant Trump supporters and White Christian nationalists and younger, socially progressive Evangelicals who subscribe to “Evangelical multiculturalism” (A. Smith 2019, p. 30; Melkonian-Hoover and Kellstedt 2019; Baker et al. 2020, p. 591). As the movement cleaves around these tensions, they spill over into what Hammond calls a current “crisis of Evangelical identity”—and potentially inclusion—in Christian higher education, evidenced in the divergent and contradictory responses regarding the Trump presidency among both Evangelical college leaders and students as well as the divergences in opinions and approaches on student support of diverse learners in and out of the classroom (2019). Baldwin and Cana found themselves in this heady mix of historical and contemporary circumstances.

4.1. Baldwin College

At a recent dinner with Liz and former Succeeder Emma, they joked about how they often stand up for Baldwin as one of the most progressive institutions in Nashville. Baldwin was not always that way (See Table 1 for student demographics at both schools). Founded in the nineteenth century as a liberal arts college, it exclusively served white learners until forced to integrate in the 1960s. A friend of my baby-boomer in-laws, who attended Baldwin during the Civil Rights movement, remembered feeling sick when students cheered in the cafeteria when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Another female family friend recalled the prohibition against women wearing pants and being the victim of the student culture of reporting on others when such prohibitions were broken.
Changes began during the late 1980s, with a focus on racial reconciliation. In the early 2000s–2010s, the college further liberalized—though men and women were still prohibited from living in the same dorms. The university leadership apologized for its role in promoting segregation; made a push toward more diversity in admissions; and built university infrastructure, including a dedicated diversity dean, a “multicultural” honors society, and leadership development program focused on inclusion. It also began awarding financial aid to undocumented students, rooted in both the personal commitments of senior leadership and the sense that the university was called by God to promote diversity in this way.
The changes were not uniformly met with admiration. Many alumni were disappointed or angry, and the administration faced pushback about progressive, antiracist voices like Black Lives Matter in its required chapel. Nevertheless, the university administration continued undeterred with its commitments. Yet, as Alondra and others pointed out, there were still holes in services and a sense of limited integration into campus life for minoritized students. There were also notable gaffes and microaggressions by senior administrations that gained traction in national news. Baldwin’s history suggests the difficulty in measuring the complex, overlapping, and competing forms of inclusion and exclusion on campus. One the one hand, Baldwin made the bold choice to support undocumented students through aid—something that seemingly more “progressive” institutions locally and nationally did after Baldwin. However, they lagged in student life efforts, and as discussed later, in the handling of racial campus climate. Nevertheless, Baldwin was a kind of beacon regarding what Evangelical PWIs could be locally.

4.2. Cana University

In the last decade, Cana has followed Baldwin’s lead in opening up its campus to more diverse learners—including Baldwin transfers lured by Cana’s lower tuition. A smaller college than Baldwin, Cana’s local reputation was that it was even more religiously conservative than other area Evangelical PWIs and more niche in its academic foci. Founded in the early twentieth century as a white-only institution, Cana only began graduating college graduates in the mid-twentieth century and integrated in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.
Cana’s movement to more diverse admissions came later than Baldwin’s, and it is thus unsurprising that campus infrastructure to support students has lagged. Under the leadership of a newly created coordinator of student engagement and diversity, a student diversity council was established in the mid-2010s to plan and execute events around DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion). Cana has embedded other supports within existing structures and has relied on external organizations to provide identity spaces for Latinx learners. A great deal of Cana’s financial support for undocumented students also comes from the private scholarship fund that Alondra relied on at Baldwin. From students and administrators’ perspective, it appears this “under the radar” approach has allowed Cana to avoid some of the pushback from alumni and negative media attention that Baldwin faced. Campus-based pushback is another story for both institutions. It is to these everyday and spectacular moments of racial and immigration climate and their effects on students’ perception of educational mobility that I now turn.

5. Results/Findings

5.1. A “Haven” on Heaven’s Campuses: Counterspace and Mobility

When asking students about Cana and Baldwin, it became clear that like Alondra they had mixed feelings. Common for all students was a sense of social isolation and campus exclusion, because of ethno-racial difference, undocumented status, and the fact that almost all Succeeders were commuters who worked full-time. As a result, most students didn’t partake in the big campus activities aimed at its largely white residential population, e.g., high-profile social events that happened after classes, co-curricular activities that had lengthy time commitments, and expensive fraternity and sorority rushes.15 When I asked Emma, a pre-business student, if she felt included at Baldwin, she noted: “I think I did. I think I had to fight to feel it.” Emma’s “fight” and her trajectory of DEI work at Baldwin evidences the importance of ethno-racial counterspaces that support youth’s educational mobility and the ways such spaces maintain educational mobility’s value for youth.
Emma had initially struggled to find friends on campus, despite the fact that she had decided to “pull out every trick that I know” to foster friendship. When her strategies didn’t work, Emma reflected that “It was hard. I was confused. I was like ‘I don’t usually get turned down [in friendship] like this.’” It also made her doubt her place on campus and whether or not higher education was meant for her, placing her future education-enabled mobility at risk. Where Emma did find friendship was in the basement at the Office of Institutional Diversity (OID). Due to students’ efforts, and those of Faye, the new Diversity Dean, there were couches and a TV for students there. Emma started going to the basement, transforming her collegiate experience:
That became, literally, my haven…it was so welcoming. That’s what OID created. That was the best feeling for me to find out that there was that—that Faye helped create that, but it was mainly the students because they felt safe and they felt like that place was where they were going to and de-stress, and try to do homework—not very successfully, because it was always too overcrowded…the laughter and all the craziness.
The basement, while enabled by staff, became animated by students’ building of a supportive, inclusive community that provided needed co-ethnic, and co-undocumented, space and sociality that students like Emma needed to get by and succeed in the Evangelical PWI. Many students cited the OID office, and basement lounge, as a key place where they would decompress and find strength to persevere in school. Their location in the basement served as a spatial reminder of Alondra’s sense that Baldwin “pushes us [Latinx students] to the side” of campus life. Students did find their way out of the basement and into the foreground of campus life.
Emma was key to that movement upward and outward. She ended up working with Faye all four years as a student staffer in OID. Together, they and other minorized student leaders continued to create counterspaces that emphasized minoritized and undocumented students’ academic achievements while building out academic assistance programs and new social spaces. Some efforts appeared passive, such as a baile folklórico demonstration on the campus green during Latinx Heritage month. Baldwin’s religious focus heightens the significance of the event. Baldwin was a no-dancing campus, aligned with the precepts of the Evangelical sect to which it is affiliated. Getting administrative clearance for the demonstration, on a prime campus location, was no small feat and required the university to accommodate students’ difference and to make physical space for them.
These spaces—designed and run by minoritized students alongside administrative allies—allowed students to have campus community apart from the residential life that dominated campus and demanded a particular kind of white, middle-class sociality. In this way, these counterspaces—commuter student lounges, Latinx social clubs, intercultural honors societies—became not only refuges of positive racial climate, but also a manifestation of “minority cultures of mobility” that reflected these students’ communities and commitments within higher education (Vallejo 2012, p. 669).
Counterspaces, however, had their limits. Emma noted that at Baldwin “I could see sometime her [Faye’s] frustration because we were doing so many great things, but to a PWI, we were just the minorities trying to do fun things.” Such dismissiveness was also frustrating to Emma, given that counterspaces enabled her sense of belonging and her commitment to Baldwin, education generally, and the upward mobility both promise. Moreover, dismissing the efforts suggested to Emma and others that they could only achieve and be included within their counterspaces. They were part of the university—but also separate from it—“assimilated, but as racialized” subjects (Ramírez 2020, p. 16). Such isolation made students feel ambivalent about both the university and mobility predicated on staying in one’s minoritized lane.
Counterspace was also not uniformly open. Sybil, a psychology major at Cana, had entered Cana with several friends from Succeeders who, like her, were undocumented. She and her friends had nominally joined a Latinx affinity group composed primarily of undocumented students, a majority of whom were former Succeeders from Nashville. Thus, the group largely matched the experience of being in Succeeders, meaning US-born Latinx and undocumented students found and made a welcoming space together that supported students across status differences. This group, as emerging counterspace, thus presented a largely united front for Latinx students—with the notable exception described later. Returning to Sybil, her closest friends, Javier and Jaime, became increasingly dissatisfied the group, courses, campus life, and Cana broadly. Sybil noted that the two young men and “a lot of people are seeing Cana as like, it’s like, they are giving us money, but it’s not like really working for them…They feel it’s just the image of involving diversity. So they feel like they are a poster child or something.” When it came to the issue of being a “poster child,” Sybil noted that “it doesn’t really bother me.” She enjoyed the Latinx group and felt recognized there as an undocumented student, which in part allowed her to persist in school. Javier and Jaime did not feel the same. They both dropped out of Cana. Leaving Cana meant leaving behind college altogether since Cana was the only affordable option for them both as low-income, undocumented students.
Their dropping out was hard on Sybil. However, she began to recognize that she was better positioned to find counterspace on an Evangelical campus, as she took a “look at their [Jaime and Javier’s] personal lives.” In addition to being commuters, undocumented, and Latinx, Javier and Jaime were also gay—something Sybil was not. While all three participated in the Latinx group run by commuting, undocumented students, the group did not sufficiently counteract the institutional hostility that Jaime, Javier, and other young, recently “out” gay men felt at Cana. While students like Sybil could retain a sense of community, it was not always possible to do so. Seeing her friends and fellow learners leave school made Sybil feel “kind of sad,” as she achieved education mobility and left others behind.

5.2. “The Jesus Version”: Accommodation in the Classroom and Mobility

While many students could form supportive social counterspaces, strategies to get by in the classroom were more difficult. They also made students question the costs and value of educational mobility. Neveah, a pre-law history major who pursued a career in human resources, described a common experience. She noted that she “was usually the only Hispanic girl [in class]” and that her professors “expected” her to talk whenever immigration came up in discussion. Her professors’ expectations made her not want to participate as she was now even more singled out as the lone minoritized person, and undocumented immigrant, in class. Undocumented business major Alicia faced similar circumstances, though more pointedly she had professors who also included anti-undocumented materials as core course content.
Neveah often would “feel uncomfortable at some moments” based on the comments from her classmates and professors. She and other students like Alicia were left to decide if they would speak out against the comments—and class materials—that misaligned with and maligned their lived experience. Both often chose not to speak. Neveah stated that, at the time, she felt “like some things just aren’t worth it [the effort of speaking out] …I’m not going to change anybody’s views, so just let it be.” She, Alicia, and others argued that they remained quiet to get through school for their own achievement and future mobility rooted in family commitments. They weren’t there to “change anybody’s views,” but to get their degrees and support their loved ones. Expressing their thoughts might lead to a more challenging environment—and potentially a worse grade. This strategy allowed students to get through hostile classroom spaces, but also resulted in the kind of ambivalence that Neveah, Alondra, and Alicia would articulate when asked about their university experience. While they were happy to get degrees, the hostility encountered along the way made students critical of the supposed inclusion and support of their schools. As Isabel noted: “What do I like about Cana? I think that students now have an option to go to school, and it’s an option where it is affordable…What I don’t like is pretty much everything else.”
The Evangelical bent of the curriculum often required further accommodation.16 Many undocumented Latinx students at Cana were drawn to the social equality major, in part due to their activism with local immigrant rights organizations. Isabel had readied herself for the discrepancy between her version of social justice and Cana’s: “I told myself, ‘You’re just going to get the textbook version’ …but what I didn’t realize going into it was that I would be getting the Jesus version of social justice.” When I asked her to elaborate, she stated that the program saw social justice “through the eyes of some theologian, some biblical perspective,” rather than the lived experience of those facing injustice, like her. She stated: “I’ve lived everything that they are trying to teach us.” Moreover, the focus on the gift of individual salvation was often used an excuse, in Isabel mind’s, to ignore attention to structural inequality, common in Evangelical thinking (Emerson and Smith 2000). From Isabel and others, it also appeared as though much of the curriculum was rooted in racial reconciliation approaches, assuming a white student audience of future social workers and missionaries atoning for a racist past.
Still, students were also able to point to limited academic counterspaces that included minoritized voices as equal partners in the classroom. Isabel cited her class on US culture, where the professor had brought in Muslim American speakers and “partnered up” with Isabel to develop course content on undocumented experiences, as the example where she felt valued in the classroom rather than ignored or tokenized. Most students could name one supportive faculty member or course where they felt they were fully acknowledged and valued as learners; however, it was often only one class or faculty member. The importance of connecting with a single faculty member should not be dismissed for both creating a sense of belonging and for potential cross-class mentorship toward upward mobility (see Rendón 2019). Isabel’s experience was the most collaborative experience of mentorship. Others like Sybil and Emma pointed to the supportive understanding of their undocumented status and its challenges by administrators like Faye. Jim and Neveah pointed to professors who pushed them academically, but knew little to nothing about their status. Collectively, these experiences point to the varied kinds of important, but singular, mentorship students could find. Maintaining even limited optimism, as Emma did, required a great deal of effort so as not to be, as she noted, “exhausted” by classes. Such experiences suggest that academic spaces on campus require students to accommodate white Evangelical perspectives through remaining silent on issues that matter to them.

5.3. “We’ve All Been Called Worse”: Conflict and Community

In these experiences of coursework and campus life, students got by through remembering they were there to “do my thing” and attain education-enabled mobility and not “change minds” of white professors and classmates. While such strategies often tore at students’ sense of self and satisfaction with their schools, they could—largely—be managed. More spectacular moments of racial/immigration climate on campus forced students to change tack to preserve their faith in educational mobility and their hard-won place in higher education. These moments also refocused students on educational mobility’s meaning and the remaking of their institutions for those behind them. In their responses, which ranged from institutional activism to expressing solidarity with their fellow undocumented learners, these students reclaimed the collective value of their educations and demanded institutional recognition of their meaningful pathways toward mobility.
In 2016, there were two high-profile events at Baldwin and Cana that pointed to a hostile climate. The first was at Baldwin and involved a beloved campus tradition. The Elk, a statue of the college’s mascot, is painted by various approved student groups for a week over the course of the academic year. It is an ethics violation to paint over a group’s art within the approved time period. When Emma, Faye, and other students painted the Elk for Multicultural Week it was vandalized with “Build the Wall” and other anti-immigrant Trump slogans. The Elk was defaced twice more that week, and each time Faye, Emma, and other students would repaint it. A few months later, the second incident occurred—this time at Cana. On a social networking site, a student referred to undocumented students as “illegals” and stated that she was pleased to know that her fellow learners were “crapping their pants,” about Trump’s election. It was later revealed that the posting student was a US-born Latinx student who was not from the local Latinx community. This student also did not take part in the supportive affinity space that Sybil found at Cana or other counterspaces there. Isabel and other students posted screenshots of the post, eventually catching the eye of Cana’s president who condemned the language in his own post.
Undocumented Latinx students’ responses in light of these incidents varied. The most visible were demands for changes to the white bureaucracy of the university to incorporate Latinx, undocumented, and minoritized others (including students) into positions of real power. For example, Emma redoubled her efforts to increase student diversity on orientation teams and participated on the President’s Task Force for remaking community standards and procedures around inclusion. She also underscored, in her capacity as a student leader with the ear of top brass, that relegating DEI work to Faye and “one or two minorities” was not a sufficient strategy. She characterized her work during her senior year thusly: “I was always fighting, sometimes very harshly, to make sure there was enough representation [of minoritized, Latinx, and undocumented students], to make sure that my voice was heard, whether it was taken in an angry way, or in a graceful way.”
She also argued that she wanted to “leave a mark” on university administration in order to “leave it where, when I left, it was ok—it would be easier for some other minority to lead.” Though her efforts ultimately had mixed results, she believed the university was “better,” and she felt better about it. Moreover, she also felt better about her experience of educational mobility grounded in her ability to “leave a mark” for others.
In contrast, Isabel worked outside of the system. She withdrew from Diversity Council in protest, arguing that she couldn’t “be part of a group that’s not willing to actually talk about the real issues on campus.” Ironically, at Cana, it would be the contentious environment of the social equality department where Isabel and other undocumented Latinx students developed their plan for change. Their efforts culminated in a list of demands including hiring more faculty of color, changing the ethics code to sanction racist nativist talk, and providing more culturally responsive counseling services. Isabel, Emma, and others’ efforts to make structural change are clearly an example of how students are not looking to accommodate whiteness or survive in a counterspace, but to make dramatic change to the white spaces of the university from locations outside and within it.
Other students followed suit, focused not on university change, but rather on retaining educational mobility’s value despite the high costs the incidents levied. Jim, an Evangelical, undocumented student studying religion, was unhappy with Cana administrators’ tepid responses, but less concerned with administrative change. When he took a turn to speak at Cana’s Community Healing Meeting, he stated:
I’m here because I have generations depending on me and somebody’s remark isn’t going to make me afraid. It’s not going to stop me…We’ve all been called worse, maybe you haven’t, but your parents, your mom, your dad, your uncle, we’ve all been called worse…I hope we can reorient ourselves and focus on why we are really here …it’s our job to stand up and realize who we are, and let the administration, to let the people know, that we are a strong people and that we’re not going to fall.
Jim focused on the communal gains of individual mobility. Attaining a college degree is imagined by nonwhite immigrant families as the foundational means through which these families attain mobility intergenerationally; however, educational mobility can often seem an individual endeavor to universities and middle-class whites (Suárez-Orozco 1987; Alba and Nee 2003; Kasinitz 2008; Duncan and Trejo 2015). Jim makes the intergenerational nature of educational mobility clear to the non-Latinx faculty and administrators in the crowd. He has “generations” depending on him, and generations who have also had to face intolerance. This speech was the first time Jim had “come out” as undocumented at Cana to faculty and staff. He felt the need to do so “because there were many freshmen, it was the largest freshman Latino group ever,” and he wanted to make sure they felt secure in their place at Cana. Like Emma, who framed her work in terms of those coming up after her, Jim reframes his mobility and actions in terms of commitments to others, familial and peer. Such attention suggests the communal focus of mobility present in minority cultures of mobility as Vallejo (2012) suggests. While the communal ends of upward mobility are often understood as an additional burden, in Jim’s speech, he suggests that collective mobility and the solidarity it engenders can be a way to resist intolerant actors and institutional inaction while getting ahead.
Isabel, Emma, and Jim are clear campus leaders who held the ear of administrators. For average students, their efforts were quieter, focused not on university change, but on solidarity in the pursuit of educational mobility in sometimes alienating institutions. Alondra told me about hearing Jim’s speech, which surprised me—since she was an Elk and not a Warrior, Cana’s mascot. She clarified:
Well, it is just my community, and I felt like it was an attack towards me, even though I wasn’t at that school and they may not have meant it towards me, but I felt like it was an attack on me—and [going was] just being there for the students that were attacked.
Other Baldwin students were there too. Their moment of cross-campus solidarity indicated investment in their “community” and their collective mobility. Through remaining present, Alondra and others served as a counter to the poster’s desire for the absence of undocumented students on campus. Presence was how less prominent students remade their universities: they would be counted by them, they would attain a degree from them, and collectively, they would support each other’s upward mobility while within them. In this everyday way, in the wake of extraordinary circumstances, students become less ambivalent about mobility’s value—it is communal and worth the cost of individual and institutional intolerance.

6. “An Institution Built on American Culture”: Discussion and Concluding Implications for Theory and Practice

Across everyday contexts of campus life and coursework, Succeeders adopted strategies to get through school toward their goal of mobility, or as they glossed it a “better life.” They, alongside allies, built social and academic counterspaces that created minoritized cultures of academic mobility that did not require students to assimilate into whiteness. They were, however, forced to accommodate it—most often in the classroom where they made painful choices to remain silent in the light of nativist racism. Academic content and social inclusion rooted in heavenly salvation and earthy prohibitions became unmoored from student’s realities and sometimes pushed them out of school entirely. When faced with moments of campus climate ruptures, students shifted their strategies for educational mobility within Evangelical PWIs toward demands for representation in white administrative spaces. They also sought solidarity with each other, and refocused on educational mobility’s communal ends. Educational mobility is not just something students need or endure, but rather something that they can be ambivalent about in light of their struggles with the terms of participation within higher education. They can also remake these terms for themselves and others. These efforts, whether Isabel’s highly visible demands or Alondra’s active listening, ask us to reconsider if our models for educational mobility focus too much on social reproduction and the struggles of life in a PWI and not enough on students’ agentive efforts.
Beyond troubling our conceptions of educational mobility, youth’s experiences reveal the limits of higher educational institutions to enable inclusive upward mobility at the top and mid-level administrative levels. The pathbreaking efforts of Baldwin and Cana to provide financial aid to undocumented students and recruit minoritized students are critical steps in ensuring greater access to higher education and the potential socio-economic mobility it can enable. The proliferation of offices and initiatives are a start to “getting better as an institution,” as Emma noted. Policy solutions for the improved campus climate largely focus on building institutional supports (like identity centers), hiring faculty and staff of color, and sharpening administrators’ competence in working with undocumented and minoritized students (Von Robertson et al. 2016; Suárez-Orozco et al. 2015). However, closer attention to how youth created supports for themselves along the way reveal how youth can be key, more grassroots partners to remake educational institutions and the racialized expectations of mobility that suffuse them. This is not to say that students should be tasked with being the frontlines of DEI, access, and retention efforts. Rather, they should be seen and valued as key constituents and partners for change who have “lived through” what the university is aiming for in DEI.
These top-down strategies have other limits. Some are rooted institutional dynamics. For example, Baldwin is comparatively richer than Cana in terms of both endowment and tuition revenue, enabling to expend greater financial resources on DEI. At the more everyday level, identity centers are sometimes not able to fully include students’ intersectional identities, as seen with Jaime and Javier. They also, as in Cana’s Diversity Council, may not go far enough to make the structural change needed for inclusion. Such efforts leave students feeling like the “poster child” for diversity, but not truly included. Isabel was also critical of efforts to just hire more administrators and faculty of color—despite it being part of her group’s demands. The coordinator of the Diversity Council was a Black man from a rural, majority white Southern town with no prior DEI experience. While Isabel thought he “has a good heart,” she also felt that “he was just hired because he’s a person of color and it makes sense to have somebody of color to facilitate these discussions.” In contrast, Faye—the white administrator at Baldwin—had professional DEI experience, but was white. Key to any DEI staffing is not just identity, but professional expertise.
I asked Emma if Baldwin was inclusive to Latinx students at the end of our interview in 2017. Getting to the foundation of the matter, Emma stated: “I don’t even know what it means to be inclusive of Latino heritage, because it’s an institution that has been built on American culture.” Peeling back the ways that white supremacy is baked into PWIs generally, and Evangelical ones specifically, can help identify what inclusion is and how it can support educational mobility that is built for all. Emma, Jim, Alondra, Sybil, and Neveah—the focal students in this article—all graduated from their respective universities. Jim owns his own business. Alondra, Emma, Jim, and Neveah have all bought homes. Sybil has worked in public schools. They are in the middle class, enabled through their college degrees. Mobility came at costs, but costs they have hoped to pay forward to those that go to God’s colleges after them.


Research reported in this publication was supported by Brown University’s Office of the Vice President for Research and the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University through the generosity of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [(P2C HD041020)].

Institutional Review Board Statement

The study was conducted in accordance with the Decla-ration of Helsinki, and approved by the Institutional Review Board of Brown University (protocol code #1004000179, 4/19/12 and #1604001472, 5/4/2016).

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.


I would like the thank the Succeeders for sharing their lives and stories with me. I would also like the thank the participants in Rethinking Mobilities Symposium; the organizers, Joanna Dreby and Leah Schmalzbauer; Sarah Bruhn; and Susan Ellison for their generous feedback.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest. The funders had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript; or in the decision to publish the results.


All names are pseudonyms.
The term Evangelical encompasses many denominations and practices, though the term’s common usage has been to describe the movements’ majority of socially conservative Protestants. While Evangelicals span political viewpoints, the faith movement is defined by shared belief in the ultimate authority of the bible, a central emphasis on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, personal conversion from sinner to saved, and a commitment to a life of service which includes proselyting (Stockhausen 2021, pp. 12–14).
Six of ten students interviewed were Roman Catholic. Two came from Spanish-language Evangelical churches rooted in a Latin American Evangelical tradition. Two attended an English language non-denominational Evangelical Protestant church. Given the topic of this article, I will not be exploring questions of religious identity and spirituality in greater depth—except to say that students experienced their schools’ religiosity in varied ways that merit their own examination.
As Ramírez (2020, p. 14) notes, assimilation must be considered in light of the longer arms of slavery, colonialism, and the “immigration apparatus that ranks and excludes certain people” into tiered, racialized citizenship statuses.
While Plyer v. Doe (1982) enables the K-12 educations of undocumented students, higher educational access is not guaranteed.
See Saenz and Ponjuan (2009) regarding gender.
For example, schools offer undocumented youth “an experience of inclusion atypical of undocumented adult life” (Gonzales 2011, p. 608; see also Abrego 2006; Enriquez 2011).
Additionally, Latinx students may also find a more inclusive path within Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), which serve the vast majority of Latinx learners (Cuellar 2014; Contreras and Contreras 2015). However, HSIs were not always Latinx-serving and thus may still have hostile racial and immigration climates (Garcia et al. 2019). Moreover, recent research suggests that HSIs and MSIs may not be entirely “empowering,” as they may both circumscribe certain parts of minoritized students’ intersectional identities and do not seem to lead to greater retention and achievement for these learners (Cuellar and Johnson-Ahorlu 2016; Serrano 2020; Montanari et al. 2022).
At fundamentalist schools, however, “the prevailing opinion is that Blacks are the sons of Ham [Noah’s son] …destined for a life of servitude” (Pérez 2013, p. 29).
Very conservative strands of white Evangelical Christianity have even gone as far as to suggest that white supremacy and non-white subordination is ordained by God (Hawkins 2021, pp. 43–67). Minoritized Evangelicals also express conservative viewpoints on social issues (see A. Smith 2019). See (Melkonian-Hoover and Kellstedt 2019; Stockhausen 2021, pp. 5–6) for a history of conflicted nativism.
This shift on immigration is reflected in what biblical evidence is highlighted. Rather than emphasizing references to welcoming the stranger (particularly in the gospel of Matthew and the book of Leviticus), anti-immigrant Evangelicals cite Romans 13:1, which instead demands all to follow man’s laws on earth.
This feeling of isolation was stronger at Baldwin, which had a larger proportion of students from wealthy backgrounds. However, the vast majority of traditional students at Cana lived on campus and did not work full-time.
For Evangelical Latinx students like Neveah and religion major Jim, the inclusion of faith-based perspectives into their classrooms and campus life was a welcome addition. For nominal and practicing Catholics, it was also a positive part of their educations. Alondra, a practicing Catholic, stated that, overall, she “loved” her school’s religious aspects, as she enjoyed “learning more about the Bible,” seeing how “Jesus is working through you as a Christian nurse,” and being able to “go to your teachers and ask them to pray for you.”


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Table 1. Student Demographics.
Table 1. Student Demographics.
Student DemographicsBaldwin CollegeCana UniversityMiddle Tennessee State University (Local Public University)
Percentage White *75%59%65%
Percentage Black7%22%18%
Percentage Latinx7%7%7%
Percentage top 20th income percentile52%26%25%
Percentage bottom 20th income percentile5.3%8%9.4%
Family Median Income$110,000$74,700$71,700
* Compiled from New York Times, Data USA.
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Flores, A. “I’ve Lived Everything They Are Trying to Teach Me”: Latinx Immigrant Youth’s Ambivalent Educational Mobility in White Evangelical Universities. Soc. Sci. 2023, 12, 7.

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Flores A. “I’ve Lived Everything They Are Trying to Teach Me”: Latinx Immigrant Youth’s Ambivalent Educational Mobility in White Evangelical Universities. Social Sciences. 2023; 12(1):7.

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Flores, Andrea. 2023. "“I’ve Lived Everything They Are Trying to Teach Me”: Latinx Immigrant Youth’s Ambivalent Educational Mobility in White Evangelical Universities" Social Sciences 12, no. 1: 7.

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