gina garcia
Features & Articles

This professor uses scholar-activism to change common perceptions of what research at Pitt looks like

  • School of Education
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Innovation and Research

Gina Garcia’s lab doesn’t require white coats or microscopes; it’s where people and communities are.

The School of Education associate professor is a researcher of equity and justice-related challenges in higher education. She’s particularly focused on how race and racism shape student, faculty and staff experiences and discerning how Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) colleges and universities with at least 25% full-time undergraduate Hispanic students support and generate a racialized organizational identity.

The product of such a school in California, Garcia began this work after finding that conversations about diversity and equity often failed to address the legacy of higher education. “Higher education was founded during colonization; settlers were killing Native people, Black people were enslaved,” Garcia said. “We were establishing institutions, but for certain groups.”

While discussions on diversity are more common now, she said the focus is often on non-Latinx minorities. “The Latinx population and Latinx scholars, we’re still lagging behind,” said Garcia, who aims to bring Latinx’ experiences in higher education to the forefront through articles, books and, most recently, a podcast.

On Sept. 12, just before the start of Hispanic Heritage Month and as part of HSI Week, she launched “¿Que Pasa, HSIs?” to share knowledge about HSIs without barriers like paywalls.

“Disseminating research in normative ways can be exclusionary and elitist,” Garcia said. “‘¿Que Pasa, HSIs?’ is an informal approach to talk about HSIs and share empirical knowledge.”

Though Pitt is not a HSI, Garcia’s efforts have resulted in impactful changes for Latinx and Hispanic community members here.

[Hispanic Heritage Month resources at Pitt and in Pittsburgh]

“If we’re expecting Pitt students first gen, low income, Pell Grant, Black, Latino, Asian American, all these different folks to engage, we [must acknowledge the] institution wasn’t designed for them and redesign,” she said. “We're starting to [enact change] by being here, being ourselves.”

In 2018, she brought Latinx and Hispanic Heritage Month to Pitt and was the founding advisor for the Latinx Student Association. These efforts generated momentum for increased Hispanic resources and collaboration throughout the city, including the Latinx Connect conference.

She’s been featured in Forbes, has work that’s been cited over 2,000 times by publications and government agencies like the National Science Foundation and is an award-winning author, with over 6,500 copies sold of her 2019 title “Becoming Hispanic-Serving Institutions: Opportunities for Colleges and Universities.”

Marialexia Zaragoza, Garcia’s graduate student researcher in the School of Education, said Garcia’s efforts aid Pitt and students nationwide. More than 2 million Hispanic students attend over 400 HSIs in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, according to the Department of Education.

“Dr. Garcia’s work is essential to Latinx communities, because she challenges structures that have historically oppressed our communities and centers the Latinx experience,” said Zaragoza, a fourth-year doctoral higher education student from Riverside, California. “Her advocacy for changes in policy and practice betters student experiences, thus impacting Latinx students nationwide. All institutions can learn from her work.”

Zaragoza and Garcia’s third-year School of Education graduate student researcher Esteban Alcalá added that Garcia has simplified and humanized navigating a doctoral program and exemplified what’s possible for Latinx and Hispanic people in the social sciences.

“She inspires me to be a better researcher, community member and overall human being,” Zaragoza said. “She’s a role model for what a chingona scholar is and can be. Her wins are all our wins.”

Garcia will continue paving the way for future Latina scholars with the January 2023 release of her book, “Transforming Hispanic-Serving Institutions for Equity and Justice.”


— Kara Henderson