As a first-generation immigrant student born in Santiago de Cuba, Glenda Vaillant Cruz said she frequently felt out of place while working her way through grade school as a child, often finding herself to be the only Latina in her classes.
She moved to the U.S. when she was just three-years-old, living first in Rochester, New York until her family settled in Kissimmee, Fla. when she was 13.
Vaillant Cruz, who is earning her PhD in applied anthropology at the USF College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) under the supervision of Dr. Kevin Yelvington, said it was this feeling of being “othered” that has consistently driven her research.
She first delved into this area of study while working toward earning dual master’s degrees–in Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino studies and applied anthropology–at USF.
As a master’s student she had the opportunity to work as a graduate assistant for CAS’ Institute for the Study of Latin American and the Caribbean (ISLAC), an interdisciplinary center which strives to promote scholarship, teaching and service to the local and global community.
Dr. Beatriz Padilla, director of ISLAC and associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, helped to guide Vaillant Cruz and her classmates as they conducted research on the experiences of the Latin American college students, faculty and staff.
So, when Vaillant Cruz earned a Fulbright scholarship, she knew she wanted to expand upon this topic, but in a new context.
She spent her 9-month experience as a Fulbright scholar examining Latin American and Latino experiences of students in Spain at the University of Granada, an endeavor she says she plans to work on as part of her dissertation.
“I always had the idea of ‘you have to do good in school’ engrained in me from a young age,” she said. “But I feel as though I’ve had to work twice as hard as others sometimes. Getting the Fulbright was an affirmation of my work.”
Vaillant Cruz conducted preliminary research on how Latino and Latin American college students living in Spain formed their identity as students, with an aim to better understand the “ethno-racial formation processes” observed in university-level students.
“How people speak in terms of the country of origin is a huge identity marker, particularly in Spain,” she said in describing some surprising finds while conducting her research. “Additionally, country of origin is an identity label. In Spain, there is no ethnic census because it’s considered discriminatory, but on a personal level, students did identify with their country of origin, such as ‘I’m Colombian.’”
Vaillant Cruz plans to return to Spain next year to continue this research, which has already been accepted for publication.
“A huge objective of the investigation is to understand how people see themselves to make in order to make university spaces more a place of belonging for them,” she said. “Students sense of belonging is correlated with academic achievement. If students feel like they belong at a university, they're going to achieve more.”
Other highlights of her time in Spain included helping to establish one of the first anti-racism student organizations and presenting her work at a conference led in collaboration with Padilla to focus on racism in higher education, drawing professors from across the globe.
“Dr. Padilla has been a really excellent mentor for me. I don't think I've had somebody like that that's been with me every step of the way,” Vaillant Cruz said. “It's nice to have someone that shares my identity. She's Latina. She's a woman. And she’s been somebody that I feel I can confide in on both an academic and personal level.”
She said having that mentorship helped get her through the master’s program.
“I'm the first person in my family to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree,” she said. “I felt out of place a lot in higher education, especially in graduate school. She's been somebody that I could always confide in and go to and motivate me.”
Padilla said that she is excited to see that the work they started together at ISLAC will be explored in different educational contexts through Vaillant Cruz’s research.
“I am really proud of her,” Padilla said. “I have seen her grow so much. She always is setting new goals. I really appreciate also that she likes to have an impact on the community, make meaningful and positive changes based on her research findings. It has been a pleasure and honor to have her as my student and to work with her for over three years now; our partnership has grown so much.”
ISLAC, Padilla said, plays a pivotal role for students looking for others with shared lived experiences and dreams.
“ISLAC also provides them with academic training and professional tools so they can success and give back to the community,” she said. “Our students love to know more about Latin America, Caribbean and Latino history, social-political issues and culture, and find different ways to engage locally and globally. In ISLAC we are very proud of our students, and our students always give us excellent reasons to be proud of. It is very rewarding to see our students getting Fulbright Scholarships, pursuing careers as diplomats, getting jobs in foreign and local governments, and in universities and NGOs in Latin America.”
Upon graduating, Vaillant Cruz said she hopes to work as a professor of anthropology.
“I hope this research and my work helps to influence immigration policy and the university space itself,” she said.