Celebrating the Diverse Experiences, Resources of College Students: Q&A with Alumna Cecilia Rios-Aguilar

Headshot photo of Cecilia Rios-AguilarA new book co-edited by alumna Cecilia Rios-Aguilar ‘07W (PhD), ‘03W (MS), associate professor of education and director of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, aims to celebrate the wealth of resources and strengths that historically underrepresented college students, and their families and communities, bring to higher education institutions.

Funds of Knowledge in Higher Education: Honoring Students’ Cultural Experiences and Resources as Strengths (Routledge, August 2017) is a documentation of research around the diverse experiences and practices of students, regardless of their background. The volume is co-edited with former Warner School of Education faculty member Judy Marquez Kiyama, currently an associate professor of higher education at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education. The editors collaborated on the book that connects this funds of knowledge approach to other key conceptual frameworks in education to examine issues related to the access and transition to college, college persistence and success, and pedagogies in higher education. The book closely examines how this powerful notion can combat inequity and deficit thinking around marginalized populations in higher education and ultimately lead to successful outcomes for all college students across the country.

Rios-Aguilar obtained her doctorate in educational policy and theory and master’s in educational administration from the Warner School, where she completed her dissertation titled “An Examination of the Relationship between Latina/o Households’ Funds of Knowledge and Latina/o Students’ Reading Achievement and Literacy Outcomes.” She was able to provide more background about her latest book.
Funds of Knowledge Book cover
What does the term ‘funds of knowledge’ mean?
My funds of knowledge journey started when I was working on my dissertation at the Warner School. I was asked this question a lot, so I’ve always had to explain it to others. It’s really trying to capture those accumulated experiences that we—every single individual—have accumulated and that we continue to use every day to live our lives. For example, when we go to the supermarket and decide what food to buy or what food is good for us, we draw from our own experiences and resources to be able to make some of those decisions. We also use those experiences and resources when we interact with others. For example, every time we encounter exchanges with family and friends, we usually use our funds of knowledge, so it’s those resources and experiences like “I’ll take care of your kids, if you help me with my math homework” and so on. And by experiences, I mean it can be as simple as cleaning a house when students were younger, or it can be more content specific, like doing accounting, math or science. A lot of students rely on their experiences to be able to survive in higher education settings.

Funds of knowledge is a term coined by anthropologists James Greenberg and Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez and researchers and literacy experts Luis Moll and Norma González, education professors at the University of Arizona, who were really the pioneers of this work. Luis Moll was on my dissertation committee so I was lucky to have a relationship with him during my time at Warner.

Why is it important for higher education institutions?
A lot of the work that Luis, myself, and others have done has focused more on K-12 education. There has not really been a lot of documentation on the types of funds of knowledge that students bring to a higher education setting, so this is the first attempt to document all of these resources and experiences in classrooms of community colleges and four-year institutions. My book co-editor, Judy, looked at college access and the funds of knowledge that families bring as part of her dissertation so she is really the pioneer of this work in a higher ed setting; however, our book is the first to go more in depth into vocational and community college classrooms with various groups of marginalized students. We offer a broader documentation of all the funds of knowledge that are available in higher education. And, we were not able to capture all of them, I would admit, but this is our first attempt to do that.

How did you become interested in this topic?
I was fortunate to have a dissertation committee at the Warner School that introduced me to this work. At the start of my graduate study, I was looking for variables that could help explain variation in Latina/o students’ academic achievement. Professor Joanne Larson introduced me to the concept of funds of knowledge through a reading that she provided and later connected me with Luis Moll at an AERA conference in Montreal, where it all began for me. I remember thinking at the time it was a really powerful approach because it easily captured what I was looking for and it gave me a non-deficit view of studying Latina/o students’ academic trajectories, so I have to give her all the credit for introducing me to this powerful concept and to Luis Moll, in particular, for supporting me throughout this journey.

How did you and your co-editor, University of Denver Professor Judy Marquez Kiyama, come together to publish this book?
I met Judy when I finished at the Warner School. I was beginning my academic career as an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, where Judy was a student at the time, so it was during my first year as a professor and her last year as a student completing her dissertation. I was teaching a class on funds of knowledge, so we immediately connected and co-wrote and published our first paper on the relationship between funds of knowledge and the forms of capital. We continued to collaborate and our work expanded when our graduate students chose to focus their dissertations on the funds of knowledge concept in postsecondary contexts. We’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge and we knew several students doing work in this area, so we thought we had enough material to write a book. We also had the support of Routledge, the same publisher that published Luis Moll’s work.

As a co-author of six chapters, can you shed some light on your own research featured throughout this book?
Judy and I wrote a very long paper that was initially rejected by a journal. It was so long that it gave us enough material to write two chapters for this book. The other book contributors have been our students who have done work in this context. Judy and I have helped each other, as well as our students, along the way. This is life work; I haven’t stopped one second doing work on funds of knowledge—either through my own work or the work of my students—so that’s reflected in this book. And, I have more coming from it.

I use a mixed-methods approach for most of my research, and that’s what I’m currently doing with community colleges here in California where I’m helping faculty to document their students’ funds of knowledge. I plan to link all of this information to student persistence and achievement, so at some point I’ll have quantitative evidence that funds of knowledge are related to students’ persistence and completion at community colleges. That’s what I’m working on now.  

How did your time at Warner contribute to your research on this topic?  How did Warner help prepare you for what you do now?
It started with my dissertation and then just evolved. While Professor Joanne Larson introduced me to this work and was instrumental in introducing me to Luis Moll, Warner Professors Kara Finnigan and Brian Brent believed in me and in my project. That, for me, was essential. Even though they were not familiar with the concept that I was using or the framework, they completely supported me and prepared me in the sense that I have the skillset to be able to do a quantitative study and even mixed-methods study, which is what I do now. It’s a result of my education at Warner, so both the emotional and academic support there and the necessary skillset have helped me to reach this point. 

I have a publication coming out soon in a journal, where we will elaborate on this work by asking people in the field to see where we can go next with funds of knowledge and other frameworks to really push social justice and redress social inequities.

Are there any key messages you’d like to highlight?
I hope that people see that there is still deficit thinking, unfortunately, in higher education that we need to dismantle and eliminate. Students bring so much to postsecondary classrooms, but they are feeling neglected. As I’m beginning to document students’ funds of knowledge in community college settings, I’m finding that even faculty are struggling with how to utilize these resources and help students. If we’re going to help students succeed, I hope that they can begin to not only identify these resources but to actually put them in practice in the classroom. I also hope people see that this is their responsibility if they have any hope in redressing inequity and changing circumstances for student success. This concept is so powerful but it’s unique of all other concepts.

We also need to address that there is a larger issue of power and other forms of capital that students need in order to succeed, so the concept of funds of knowledge does not operate in isolation. This all has to be part of a larger conversation that relates funds of knowledge to other key conceptual frameworks, including forms of capital, critical race theory, community cultural wealth, and critical pedagogy, if we want to carry out this social justice work.

What do you hope that readers learn from this book?
I hope that they see that every student—and any marginalized group—has a place within a funds of knowledge framework. I hope they find refreshing some of the stories told by underrepresented students who were able to navigate their higher education institutions. And I really hope that they understand the importance of doing something about existing inequities and injustices and supporting all students. These historically underrepresented students should not be viewed as one more statistic, nor should they be viewed as lazy or as not committed to their academic endeavors. In fact, they always show up in our classrooms, so that tells you something. The book is about students’ families as well, with one chapter diving deeper into the experiences of immigrant families that came to the U.S. to pursue college degrees. It’s all reality, not fiction, and our book shares the stories of real people. I hope that readers get inspired by some of these real-life stories.

What was the most rewarding part of publishing this book?
To know that I have a partner to conduct research with and publish with about funds of knowledge in a higher education context is just amazing. Judy is a terrific partner. We not only share the book academically, but we share the journey of motherhood as we were both pregnant and gave birth to our sons when were putting this book together. We’ve shared motherhood, we’ve shared the book, and we’ve shared a lot of the same perspectives on the various forms of knowledge that help students succeed. This experience was nothing but wonderful because of her. She helped me a lot, and we both pushed each other in different ways. All of my students came through, too, and they’ve been doing amazing things, so being able to provide a space for them to publish has been equally rewarding. A handful of my students—some current and some former—have chapters in this book, so it’s a pretty significant thing for me.

What’s next for you?
We live in a difficult time right now, particularly following President Trump’s recent decision to rescind and phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Without any doubt, DACA has positively impacted students’ access to higher education. In one book chapter written by Gloria Itzel Montiel, we highlight the stories of undocumented students who have used their funds of knowledge to navigate Ivy League institutions. As a result of this presidential decision not to renew DACA, things will now become problematic and complicated for this particular group of students, who may be removed or deported under new and changing immigration policies. It must be so difficult for students who are here under DACA to wake up every day and not know what’s going to happen. It bothers me and hurts me, and that’s why we can’t stop this work because they need our help. Marginalized students need us to help them to raise their voice. We need to be allies and stand with them so I hope this is just the beginning of that type of work. It’s tremendously needed right now. My hope is that it will become something larger.
Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
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Tags: alumni, book, funds of knowledge, higher education, research