Thoughts on Theses: Elaine Vilorio
Issue   |   Wed, 04/12/2017 - 01:10

Elaine Vilorio is a double major in black studies and the interdisciplinary major Latin American and Latino studies. Her thesis examines educational disparities between different race and class groups in her hometown in Hackensack, New Jersey. Her adviser is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Sociology Leah Schmalzbauer.

Q: How would you describe your thesis?
I would describe it as a way for me to figure out what had always interested me ever since I came to Amherst, which is, why was I one of the few people in my neighborhood who went to college? I come from Hackensack, New Jersey, [where] … race and class are very much tied together. It’s typically the case that a lot of the low-income people in the town are black or Latino, or both … [while] the suburbs are where most of the white people live. Growing up, I saw the neighborhood disparities mirrored in the school system. In the honors classes was where more of the well-off people were, and so there were a lot of white students … And then the lower-level classes were more of the students from my neighborhood … I never really had classes with them, because I got into the honors track. I got into Amherst, came here and I always wondered what had made the difference for somebody like me. Because I didn’t think it was as simple as [that] I was smarter. That just didn’t seem like the right explanation, because I knew the people that I was thinking about, and these were people that were very insightful and were just smart people. And they didn’t make it to college … I had peers who got pregnant, guys who got into trouble with the law and stuff, but these were all people who I knew were really bright. I came here and I was like, “Okay, what made the difference?” … My idea was basically, let me go back to my town and interview people who went to college who are low-income, Dominican especially — my family and I emigrated from the Dominican Republic in the early 2000s ...

Interterm of junior year, I went back to my town and … I recruited people that I knew [to interview], and they referred me to people that they knew, so I got to speak to a lot of people who were Dominican, who went to college [and] grew up low-income … I had only a few people who didn’t go to college, and most of the people in my sample did go to college, which is kind of the reverse of reality. I had to change my thesis to not so much be a comparision, but to be an identifier of patterns — what patterns can I detect within the group of people that went to college that could have potentially made a difference in them that the other group lacked? …

I interviewed the children of immigrants, and I also interviewed first-generation immigrants themselves, older adults who come here from the Dominican Republic, who were usually the parents of my interviewees — [though] in some cases they weren’t. I just wanted to get a sense for why people’s experiences were the way that they were. I was interested in why we were all concentrated in these low-income neighborhoods … In interviewing these people, I started picking up a pattern … [I] analyzed the interviews, did some background research on the town of Hackensack [and] demographic research. Things that I had known about the town were confirmed with data and polling census data, so I knew that … race and class were very much tied together, but it wasn’t until I saw the numbers that I was like, “Oh, it really is tied together.”

The predominantly black and/or Latinx neighborhoods were the poorest neighborhoods in the town … I started seeing a pattern which was corroborated by what I had read in other studies, which is especially for low-income immigrants of color, that two things were crucial for getting people to a four-year college: familial support, having your family understand the value of education and push for education and talk about education and why it’s so important … and also what I call “gatekeepers,” which is, basically, people who take a special interest in the student and have institutional power. So it could be a teacher [or] it could be a coach, but there was always that one person or a cluster of people. For some reason they saw something in the student and for some reason they really invested time in this person … I managed to see those patterns in my own life too, people who took a special interest in me.

This thesis was very much a study of the people I grew up with, and it was also to figure out what made a difference for me and why there needs to be more institutionalized programs so things aren’t so much left by chance … I think that something my thesis does is highlight the structural influence of things. I don’t so much delve into personal things like resilience — a lot of people are resilient — but my point in the thesis is at least to say that working hard is good and it’s going to get you somewhere, but sometimes working hard isn’t enough. You need the combination of working hard and then you need somebody to open the door for you to work hard. You need those things, both of those things, and sometimes you don’t get the door opened for you.

Q: What was one great moment from your thesis?
The first was interviewing the people. I love interviewing people … People were vulnerable, they let me into their home … The thesis would be nothing without the people who allowed me to interview them — absolutely nothing …

[The] second great moment is having my mom help me with the thesis. [For] my mom, and my parents in general, there isn’t much room for them to be involved in my education, especially at a place like Amherst. It’s this elite place. When they come here for admitted students’ weekend, there really isn’t much programming for them. They primarily speak Spanish. I try to bring them to things, but it’s just difficult. If you don’t speak Spanish, and you don’t really get how higher education works here … you just don’t know how to interact at first, unless you kind of continue staying in them. So they haven’t really had much of a chance to participate in the education that Amherst has given me, and even in high school, again being an immigrant and not knowing much about the American education system. This was a chance for my mom and my dad to be involved in my education. They reached out to people in the community, and they were like, “She’s doing this thesis, and she wants to speak to people,” and they were kind of vouching for me, and that was really amazing to have them be involved ... They were so helpful, and so happy to help me and [be] supportive.

The third great moment was probably when I presented my thesis at a conference. A couple of us presented at the sociology conference … and it was amazing to present it alongside Ph.D. students and actually compete with them. We were frequently the very best presenters, which was wild. So it was cool to know that Amherst had prepared us to produce quality work to the point where we were comparable to and sometimes better than the doctoral candidates that we were presenting alongside of. And my parents came to that, which was really cool for them, to get to come to an academic space and hear my thesis. I gave them a shout-out at the end in Spanish.