Daisy Reyes
“Underrepresented minorities and first-generation college-going youths find campuses particularly unfamiliar and thus seek refuge in student groups,” says Daisy Reyes, a UCI grad student in sociology. And integration is key to retention. Hoang Xuan Pham / University Communications

Editor’s note: Daisy Reyes is the graduate student honoree at this year’s Lauds & Laurels event, to be held Thursday, May 12, at the Hyatt Regency Irvine. Since 1971, the UCI Alumni Association and its board of directors have annually presented Lauds & Laurels awards to individuals demonstrating heartfelt dedication to the university community.

The prospect of better employment may be what motivates students to enroll in college, but the key to keeping them enrolled has a lot to do with peer-bonding experiences and organizational involvement, says Daisy Reyes, a UC Irvine graduate student in sociology. According to her research, this is particularly true for ethnic minorities.

“American students learn the benefits of creating associations early in their academic experience, so it’s not surprising that they strive to form collective voices and carve out communities on their campuses,” Reyes says. “Although creating student associations is not unique to ethnic groups, underrepresented minorities and first-generation college-going youths find campuses particularly unfamiliar and thus seek refuge in student groups.”

Reyes, who is both a Latina and first-generation university student, can relate. As a freshman at UC Santa Barbara, she struggled acclimating to the university environment. She found her niche in Mujeres Unidas por Justicia, Educacion y Revolucion, a politically oriented women’s support group.

“This organization was very instrumental in connecting me to a community of like-minded women on campus,” Reyes says. “I felt at home there, which was really important given that I was away from home for the first time.”

As a graduate student at UCI, she sought to create a similar sense of community among Latino students, so she co-founded the Chicano-Latino Graduate Student Collective. Her research emphasis became Chicano/Latino studies, with a focus on the role of organizations and clubs in Latino students’ lives.

“Understanding how Latinos fit in the university and what part ethnic organizations play can help give administrators and diversity initiative coordinators a map of what’s going on – all of which may translate into better integration of Latinos on campus and, ultimately, completion rates,” Reyes says.

The latter, she notes, is an important point since, according to 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 34.5 percent of Latinos aged 25 to 29 had completed some college, while only 12.2 percent had attained a bachelor’s degree. Comparatively, the national average of all 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed some college was 59.9 percent, with 30.6 percent receiving a bachelor’s degree.

Through interviews and observations, Reyes has analyzed the roles of six ethnically oriented organizations on three Southern California campuses: a large, commuter-based public teaching university; a large, research-focused public university; and a small, private liberal arts college.

Her findings – which she presented at the Pacific Sociological Association – indicate that Latino student organizations at the large public institutions create a “family away from home” in the absence of a campus connection. Classes at these schools are often lecture halls, and students rarely know faculty. Ethnic organizations, particularly at the public commuter university, also serve to inform students of campus resources available to them.

The smaller elite college, Reyes found, does a better job of integrating students academically and socially, so Latino groups are less about community building and more focused on bringing relevant programs to campus and teaching others about Latino culture.

“Latino-specific associations are critical in fostering social networks, creating support systems and mentorship opportunities, and sometimes stimulating students to advocate policy change on campus and in the outside world,” she says.

Reyes will follow her subjects’ involvement and academic outcomes for several years to provide a foundation for ongoing longitudinal studies on Latino ethnic and political identities.

Her work has been well received, earning her the sociology department’s Service Award for research and teaching, and a competitive UC All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity fellowship has funded her dissertation.

“Daisy’s research is important because it helps us understand identity development among Latino students in higher education,” says Cynthia Feliciano, associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies and sociology.

Sociology professor David Meyer agrees, adding: “Daisy’s work has important and very real policy relevance to university administrators.”