“Ambicultural” Latinx Students and Educational Equity: A Q&A With Tina Fernandez

When I think of someone who exemplifies the Bellwether mission, Tina Fernandez is an obvious choice. She’s been part of the Bellwether family, in many different capacities, since our founding.

A long-time friend (we were college roommates) and one of the only lawyers I knew, I reached out to Tina for advice when Bellwether filed for its nonprofit status back in 2007. She helped with our filing and served as a founding member, and later as chair, of Bellwether’s board of directors. In 2014 she left the board to join Bellwether full-time as a partner, where she co-led the launch of Bellwether’s talent management and organizational effectiveness services. (These services have since spun off into a new organization, Promise54.)

It was a bittersweet moment when Tina left Bellwether’s staff in 2015 to lead Achieve Atlanta, where she’s been serving as Executive Director ever since. In her role, she works to dramatically increase the number of Atlanta students completing post-secondary education. Luckily, she’s back on our board, and brings an invaluable perspective on the advisory work we do, the leaders we serve, and the problems in urban education we are trying to help solve. (She’s held a number of other impressive roles in the past, including law professor and classroom teacher — you can read more here.)

September is Hispanic Heritage Month, so the interview below touches on education efforts specific to Latinx communities, as well as broader lessons from her current role. I’m so glad I haven’t let Tina lose touch after all these years.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

When we were college roommates, I had not yet landed on education as my likely career. When did you know that you’d pursue a career in education? Can you remember a concrete moment or experience that showed you your future path?

I grew up in the wonderful Rio Grande Valley of Texas and attended a public school where over 90% of the student body was Latino/a. When I went away to college, I realized how inequitable our high school education had been; I was one of only a few Latino/a students on my campus.

So I knew from early on that I wanted to work with low-income youth. At college, I quickly sought out opportunities to work with kids who had similar backgrounds to mine. I joined CityStep my freshman year, an organization whose mission is to promote creative self-expression and mutual understanding through dance. I served as the executive director my last two years in college. For four years at CityStep, I also spent a substantial amount of time teaching dance and self-expression in 4th and 5th grade public school classrooms. Through this, I really developed a passion for youth development.

During my sophomore and junior year summers, I worked with an organization called Keylatch, a summer urban camp serving youth in Boston’s South End and Lower Roxbury. These experiences allowed me to develop relationships with the most wonderful, intelligent, and promise-filled kids and solidified my commitment to fighting for educational justice.

By my senior year, I decided to apply to Teach For America, an organization which was only two years old at the time. And the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve taken a couple of detours in my career, but I’ve always stayed connected to education and children’s rights.

Tell us a little bit about your work at Achieve Atlanta, and the biggest hurdles and most exciting opportunities your organization faces in achieving its mission.

Leading Achieve Atlanta has been a dream come true. I get to work on everything I care about — education, equity, and social justice — with amazingly smart and dedicated people. We work everyday to help Atlanta Public Schools (APS) students get to college, pay for college, succeed in college, and complete a degree. The ultimate goal is to solve the income inequality and lack of social mobility that has plagued our city for decades. We do all of our work by leading intra- and cross-sector collaborations and believe deeply that to solve the most complex problems in our society, we have to collaborate with a variety of stakeholders.

The most exciting thing to me is that we are seeing promising results! We’ve only been around for a little over three years, but the college enrollment rate has already gone up ten percentage points since we started. Our first class of scholars also persisted in college at higher rates than the national and state rate for similar students.

The biggest hurdle is that there are some entrenched systems in place that make it very difficult to make radical change. Structural and institutional racism, poverty, and inequitable education are the big ones. In addition, for a long time, higher education’s focus has not been on degree completion, and so many institutions are having to go through deep cultural and structural changes to improve the persistence and completion of low-income, first-generation, and nontraditional students. But we’re working on these too!

“College for all” is such a controversial phrase in our sector. What are your thoughts on whether every student should attend a four-year college? How should leaders working on college access and persistence think about this?

At Achieve Atlanta, we believe that every student should have access to a post-secondary degree or credential with labor market value. There are many paths to this. But the reality is that very low percentages of students who attend community college ever finish, so we have to make non-four-year pathways stronger and more effective at getting students through.

This is ultimately about giving young people what they need to fully participate in society, make a family living wage, have the skills and abilities to participate in civic life, and achieve their dreams.

Latinx students will soon make up the majority of the student population in a few of our most populous states — California, Texas, Florida. What are the biggest implications of these demographic shifts, especially as young people transition to college?

This is super exciting and a huge opportunity for our country — if we make the proper investments. Latinx students are not just bi-cultural but ambicultural. (This term, traditionally used in the marketing space, refers to Latinxers ability and desire to fully function in two cultures.) In a shrinking world, the ability to effectively navigate different cultural and societal landscapes will become increasingly valuable. The public and private sectors need to ensure that we have representation at all levels of education and that decision makers represent the students we are serving.

Do you mark Hispanic Heritage Month with your colleagues or family?

Every day is Latino heritage day in our house. My husband is of Cuban descent, I’m of Mexican descent, and our kids value their Latinx identity. And their American identity. And their ATLien identity. I look forward to a time when we no longer have designated months for different demographics but celebrate our multiracial and multiethnic Americaness every day.

Who are some education leaders or organizations doing good work with Latinx populations that you wish more people knew about?

I’m on the board of Latinos for Education (L4E), which is working to increase Latino/a representation in education at all levels, especially leadership levels, across our country.  Amanda Fernandez is doing a great job scaling up the work of L4E!

Are you yet able to discuss your local NFL team’s stunning loss to my local NFL team a couple years ago at the Superbowl without breaking down? I have a tissue if you need it….

Oh Mary, why are you hating?!