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Tanya J. Gaxiola Serrano: Dismantling the traditions of academia to create an inclusive, inquisitive space for all

October 18, 2021
Tanya J. Gaxiola Serrano: Dismantling the traditions of academia to create an inclusive, inquisitive space for all

Profile photo of Tanya J. Gaxiola Serrano

Tanya J. Gaxiola Serrano, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, has been selected as a 2022 American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE) Faculty Fellow.  

This prestigious fellowship provides a community of support and resources for Latinx faculty pursuing promotion and tenure. It will help Gaxiola Serrano advance her efforts to create welcoming academic spaces for faculty and students from underrepresented communities. This personal mission for Gaxiola Serrano is the reason she decided to pursue a career in academia.

As one of the original 189 institutions federally designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution, UTSA has a longstanding commitment to ensuring that students, faculty and staff represent the demographic makeup of South Texas. It’s also a key reason Gaxiola Serrano joined UTSA in 2019. After she earned her Ph.D. in Social Science and Comparative Education, with a specialization in Race and Ethnic Studies from UCLA, she left Los Angeles to be in a community similar to her hometown.

“I saw that as an opportunity to give back to our communities, ensuring that all students are receiving a quality education that’s going to promote their educational aspirations and allow them to also give back to their communities,” she said. 

As representation is a key factor in the success of students of color, she knew her background as a first-generation immigrant and college student could make an impact. Gaxiola Serrano’s belief in the power of education and community reflect the influence of her mother, Elvia Serrano. Growing up in the border region of San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, Gaxiola Serrano watched her mother cross the border each week to teach in Mexico. 

Together, Gaxiola Serrano and Serrano collaborated on a journal article, Building Bridges: Epistemic Violence and Mother–Daughter Pedagogies from the US–Mexico Border. The publication introduces their unique experiences as valuable research in the higher education space, challenging the traditional valuation of academic research. 

“That's how I see my position now, it's kind of a storyteller. I want to share the stories of folks who have been historically erased from our dominant discourse and make sure that we're recognizing not only the struggle but also the work, the advocacy, and the resistance that these communities bring."

Though UTSA is a young university, it still contends with the institutional issues inherent in higher education around race, inclusivity, and access. In that respect, Gaxiola Serrano is a critical player in UTSA’s mission to be a model of transformation within higher education and to prepare students to change the world. Critical conversations, research and faculty leadership from members like Gaxiola Serrano are ways the university is moving beyond being Hispanic serving to become Hispanic thriving.

Part of my pedagogy and who I am as a Critical Race scholar and Chicana Latina Feminista scholar is centering the perspectives and the knowledges of people that have been historically oppressed or left at the margins,” said Gaxiola Serrano. “I hope that my research, teaching, and service can help make UTSA a more inclusive, progressive, and critical space as we hold ourselves accountable to our communities.”

In addition to advancing UTSA on an institutional level, Gaxiola Serrano’s research challenges how knowledge is valued and produced within the entire academic enterprise. Her forthcoming co-edited special issue for the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, titled “Chicana/Latina Feminista Pláticas in Educational Research,” introduces pláticas, or conversations, as a viable alternative to the traditional interview. While an interview allows interviewers to have complete control over the process, a pláticas methodology disrupts this power dynamic. It creates collaboration and trust between the interviewer and the participant.

“What we’re saying through the pláticas methodology is that the researcher has to be willing to be vulnerable as well. If I’m not willing to answer a question, I’m not going to ask it,” she said. “It’s a space where you honor the participant as someone who has knowledge and that their knowledge is valid.”

Gaxiola Serrano’s next research project will be critical to helping higher education institutions serve students better. In her graduate courses, she has witnessed how her students experience the realization that their K-12 education frequently omitted the histories of people of color. However, once these students were presented with a more accurate and fuller scope of history, they became motivated to share this knowledge with others and continue their education.

Gaxiola Serrano will study how students at four-year and community colleges enrolled in ethnic studies courses are changed by learning their true history and how they use this new knowledge to fuel their academic journey. She hopes that this research will encourage higher education institutions to offer more ethnic studies courses. Within UTSA, she hopes her research will empower students of color and support institutional efforts to improve retention and graduation rates.

“Dr. Tanya Gaxiola Serrano is a student-centered faculty mentor. She dedicates time to her students inside and outside the classroom," said Mariela A. Rodríguez, professor and interim chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. "I can always count on Dr. Gaxiola Serrano to provide keen insights on a variety of issues related to curriculum development and departmental initiatives."  

Gaxiola Serrano teaches the following courses:

  • HSA 5203 Multicultural Issues in Higher Education
  • HSA 5003 History of Higher Education in the United States
  • HSA 5403 Partnerships for College Readiness and Success
  • EDL 6973: Systemic Barriers for Students in Community College
  • EDL 7783 Special Topics: Critical Race Theory Seminar
  • EDL 7423 Theoretical Frameworks in Higher Education

Read more Faculty Features about other interesting and accomplished faculty at UTSA.