Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Doctoral student Claudia Zapata is interested in the stories people tell, and her own story of successfully straddling two cultures reveals the power of education to transform one generation after another.

Claudia Zapata Explores How Personal Stories Expand Education Choices

By Rebekah Snyder
Claudia Zapata

Claudia Zapata is interested in stories — especially those we tell about ourselves. Particularly among her fellow Latinos, the doctoral student in the Human Development and Social Policy program observes, “How students tell their stories reveals how they deal with the pressures of a multicultural environment.” It’s a pressure Claudia understands well, and in her story of successfully straddling two cultures we can learn much about the power of education to transform one generation after another.

Zapata’s family emigrated from Colombia to California when she was three. As the daughter of a civil engineer, she learned early on to value education. “I knew if I asked my dad about a problem in algebra, he would go all the way back to Euclid,” she says with a laugh. But despite having worked in his field in Colombia, his first job at an American company was as a mechanic. In time, Zapata’s father rose to become a civil engineer again, and the lesson was not lost on her. “His education allowed him to move beyond an entry-level job,” which significantly elevated her family’s situation, she notes.

It was during college that Zapata discovered how truly fortunate she was to have parents who both valued education and had the experience to support her. “Many Latino parents have high expectations for their kids, but they don’t necessarily have the educational background to help,” she notes. High schools often can’t support these students effectively, either. Part of her research, under SESP professor James Rosenbaum, focuses on the crucial role guidance counselors play in shaping the college application process for minority and low-income students.

Whether they are the first to attend college or, as for Zapata, their parents earned degrees in another country, minority students often struggle to navigate the college application process and competing cultures. For example, she explains, “If a counselor encourages a Latino student to broaden her horizons by applying to colleges throughout the country, the counselor may not appreciate family pressures to stay close to home.” Zapata is exploring how high school guidance counselors can be trained to better understand and value students’ cultural backgrounds in order to more effectively prepare them for higher education.

Once in college, these students continue to face challenges. “Even at elite colleges,” she notes, “Latino students report that stereotypes either directly or indirectly affect their performance.” It’s a truth she witnessed as an undergraduate and worked against after college at the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization serving the city’s immigrant population. One of the organization’s most effective programs, Zapata found, encouraged minority students to come to terms with stereotypes by embracing their culture through telling their personal stories. The psychology and comparative literature major was hooked.

Seeking to better understand how minority students can achieve better academic success by telling their personal stories, Zapata discovered the work of Dan McAdams, SESP professor of human development and social policy and chair of Northwestern’s psychology department. “I fell in love with it,” she says. Working with McAdams, Zapata is now collecting data on how Latino students, through their personal narratives, “deal with family, school, reactions to their heritage, stereotypes, becoming American, and reconciling two cultures and competing values.” She has been recognized for outstanding scholarship by being selected as a fellow for the Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences at Northwestern.

As she reflects on her research to date, Zapata expresses some reservations. “Studying high performance among Latinos is also a way of indicating that it is an unusual thing,” which can reinforce negative stereotypes, she says. But for Zapata, the stakes are too high. In her future, she envisions a career dedicated to identifying new strategies and policies to ensure that students like her have their best chance at academic success in higher education — and all the transformational power that education provides.