Sarah Rodriguez is a new assistant professor in the School of Education who brings to Iowa State an expertise in underrepresented student populations at community colleges. Photo by Blake Lanser.

Highly sought-after scholar joins Iowa State’s community college leadership program

Sarah Rodriguez began her journey in higher education within the community college setting. As she joins the faculty of Iowa State University’s Community College Leadership Program this fall, she said it seems like she’s coming full circle.

“With community colleges, I really love that you’re not just in the ivory tower,” she said. “You’re down in the trenches with the community, really making sure that we’re educating everyone and providing lots of points of entry for all different types of people.”

Rodriguez, a new assistant professor in the School of Education, brings to Iowa State an expertise in underrepresented student populations in higher education, especially at community colleges.

Her research interests center upon equity, access, and retention issues for underrepresented students in the educational pipeline. She especially focuses on community college students and the intersections of race and gender for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students.

It was during her coursework at Trinity Valley Community College as a teenager that she started to consider which students gained access to higher education and how they were able to succeed. She set off on a journey to improve the access and success of underrepresented students in higher education, nurtured by her mentors working in the college’s institutional research office.

“Her experience at the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin and her work with the New Mathways Project at the Charles A. Dana Center provide her with a set of experiences that are highly sought after all over the country,” said Larry Ebbers, a University Professor in the School of Education.

Considering Latinas in STEM

Rodriguez recently earned her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, investigating how Latina college students make meaning of and develop their STEM identities.

She discovered that Latinas develop their STEM identities primarily through their relationships with their gender, racial, and other intersectional identities. Their STEM identity development was shaped by their status as women and underrepresented minorities.

“It wasn’t enough to just say they were STEM students,” she said. “They were always women STEM students. They were always Latina STEM students. These identities couldn’t be separated and influenced the interactions and experiences that these students had both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Rodriguez’s work highlights the need to consider the dynamic role of identity for underrepresented STEM students and apply it to the work that educators do.

“I hope my work will shift our thinking on STEM students and help stakeholders better understand STEM identity development,” she said. “I believe that through my work, educational stakeholders will be able to enhance STEM identity development and ultimately improve persistence in STEM.”

Joins Community College Leadership Program

Rodriguez joins the faculty in Iowa State’s Community College Leadership Program.

The program has cultivated 10 of Iowa’s 15 community college presidents, two-thirds of those colleges’ administrators, and three-fourths of their leadership teams. It’s also prepared several college presidents and cabinet-level administrators in Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, and Kansas.

“Sarah comes to ISU with an exceptional background in higher education and specifically community colleges,” Ebbers said. “She has special expertise in students of color and student assessment and engagement. We are excited to have her join our higher education faculty. She adds a real dimension to our nationally recognized Community College Leadership Program.”

This fall, she’s teaching an introductory course on research methods — which she says is a good fit because she loves the process of conducting research and inspiring others to get involved in research.

Rodriguez has authored more than a dozen papers, book chapters, and research briefs, including two journal articles. She’s active in the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), American Educational Research Association (AERA), and Council for the Study of Community Colleges (CSCC).

While at Iowa State, she will continue her work as a faculty affiliate with Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success) and at San Diego State’s M2C3, the Minority Male Community College Collaborative. She’s a Gates Millennium Scholar and a fellow with the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE).

“I’m here because my colleagues told me that it’s a really good place to be nurtured, to have the support that you need as a new faculty member,” Rodriguez said. “The emphasis that the university and the program that I’m with has on community college student access, and also the rising demographics of Latinos in the state, really made it a good fit for me.”