Education opens doors and diversity opens innovation: A conversation with Lisa Magaña, Provost Fellow for ASU’s Hispanic Serving initiatives

In June, ASU was designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) by the US Department of Education. This means that Hispanic students now make up at least 25% of the entire ASU student body. Hispanic graduate students are 15% of the total graduate student population. So the numbers do not yet meet the 25% threshold but are trending in that direction each year. 

In addition to the HSI designation, ASU also joined the Hispanic Serving Research Universities Alliance, which aims to double the number of Hispanic doctoral students. For ASU, that would mean going from roughly 400 to 800!

If you are a Hispanic student, that means that there will be more students and faculty at ASU who are Hispanic. If you are not Hispanic, then you have a greater opportunity to meet someone who has experiences and knowledge different from your own. That is an exciting opportunity for both to share and exchange knowledge. 

Why do these experiences matter?

To answer this and other questions, I am taking this issue of the Graduate Insider to host an interview with a colleague and long-time friend of mine, Dr. Lisa Magaña, who among other designations is Provost Fellow for ASU’s Hispanic Serving initiatives.

Conversation with Lisa Magaña

Editorial note: the following transcription has been edited to remove unnecessary, repetitive or erroneous phrases.

ELIZABETH WENTZ, host: Lisa, thank you for joining me today for this conversation.

LISA MAGAÑA, guest: It is my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

WENTZ: Can you start off by telling our readers a little bit about your current position at ASU and how long you have served in that position?

MAGAÑA: Well, first of all, I am a political scientist by training and I'm a professor from the School of Transborder Studies. My area of expertise is Latino politics in the United States, immigration and the connection between immigration and politics. This year, I have the good fortune to be the Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in The College, also known as The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. And as you said, I’m also the Provost Fellow for HSI.

I am also working with what's called the HSRU, which is the Hispanic Serving Research University Alliance. That's a big deal because there are only about 21 universities that have an HSI distinction and are also research-heavy universities. This is really exciting because it opens up the opportunity to work with other really excellent universities in order to work with more Latino graduate students and faculty. So a lot of opportunities open up with this HSI designation.

WENTZ: That's fantastic! What made you decide to go to graduate school, earn a PhD, and take this as a life path?

MAGAÑA: I'll tell you three parts of my very long story.

When we grew up…well, let’s just say, we weren’t wealthy. One day, my parents got a letter saying due to our socio-demographic status, I could be tested to see if I needed glasses, for free. Sure enough I needed glasses. I remember thinking, “How remarkable that the government could have a policy that could make lives better.” After that, I was always interested in policies. I got my bachelor’s in political science and worked for the city attorney and in housing policy.

After I finished my BA, I went to the Claremont Colleges and there was a place called the Tomas Rivera Center, which was a Latino policy research center. This was like my dream job, and I got into a master's program. We worked on policies and it was fantastic! 

I had all this encouragement to get my master's degree, but at the time, I was engaged to a man who was telling me I wasn’t smart enough to get a PhD — that I wasn’t PhD material. He told my Mom that I was going to get too educated and no man would want me. But I remember there was so much sexism and all these cultural norms — I was being told I should be married already. I was probably 27. Anyway, I didn't marry him and I got my PhD in political science with an emphasis in policy.

WENTZ: Let's dive into this a tiny bit more. How do you combine your cultural heritage with your research agenda?

MAGAÑA: When I was in graduate school, political science was very much about white men voting, how many white men got into office and how many white men in political parties are influencing politics. 

In my culture you can be very political and it's not necessarily just through voting or holding office. So culturally, I knew that had to change. A good example in Arizona, we have these remarkable immigrant activists that are very much politically mobilizing communities, and to say that they're not political – you know that's crazy. Culturally, I knew there's an old definition of politics that is important to transform or think about differently. Yes, definitely there's a connection between my disciplinary background and what I bring to it personally based on my culture and my history.

WENTZ: Who would you say has influenced you the most in this area? 

MAGAÑA: There was a book I read years ago by Bill Ong Hing. He was the first scholar I read and thought — Wow! It was a book about Asian immigration, but the way he wrote about policies was story-like. I thought that was so much more powerful than some other political science books. And if I may be so bold, when people read my books, they say, “I love how you tell stories in a way I haven't seen from a political scientist.” I really like that. Some of the books I've written have been about immigrant advocates and I tell their stories. It's not traditional political science.

WENTZ: I would agree with that assertion — that your storytelling is fabulous, and it has a significant impact. So I think it's great that you're doing it that way.

MAGAÑA: Thank you so much.

WENTZ: What tips would you give a Hispanic student who's earning a PhD right now?

MAGAÑA: It's a lot of work, it’s hard, and kind of lonely, but it ultimately is worth it in the end.

I also know, it’s hard to be the only one. Many times it's hard to explain to your family what you're doing. If you're the first generation to attend they don't understand.

I used to get, “You're still in school? Why don't you get a real job?”

Stick with it, it's so worth it. It's a privilege. Think about that. It's really a privilege to be able to learn and to learn at such an elite level.

As the HSI Provost Fellow, it's been really wonderful to see the community and what you can do with a PhD. I would never be in this position if I didn't get the PhD. It's opened so many opportunities — traveling, meeting people, being able to provide for my family, being able to do good things for other people. Education opens the door for a lot of things.

And if you have imposter syndrome or think you don't belong and don't deserve it, that feeling doesn't end. You always have that. So know that you deserve it! You are worthy of this!

WENTZ: Through all your experiences, as a student, and now, as an accomplished scholar with leadership appointments, how do you maintain a positive attitude?

MAGAÑA: I feel very privileged. I do. I feel really humbled, and I feel a responsibility. I just feel like I'm so lucky to get paid to do this – what I really enjoy.

I will say it's all about the students. They're wonderful – especially some of our immigrant students. They're amazing, you know.

Did I ever tell you the story of my DACA student?

One day he told me, “I’ve got to miss my Latino politics class on Tuesday, because I'm going to the Supreme Court. They're going to be announcing a DACA decision.” So I said, “Of course, when you are at the Supreme Court, you have to keep us posted.” So he's texting us, telling the class what's going on, “I'm here, we're protesting. I may not be able to vote, but I'm inspired and this is what democracy looks like.” I was like. Oh, my God! These students, you know…

WENTZ: That's real.

MAGAÑA: It's real, man! 

WENTZ: Lisa, it's been really terrific talking to you. I appreciate your time today and I appreciate what you're doing for ASU in this fellows position, your role in the dean’s office, and of course I appreciate our longtime friendship.

MAGAÑA: Well, thank you, Libby, for picking me.

WENTZ: Thank you, Lisa, for picking me, too.