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Cecilia Rios-Aguilar Honored by AERA as 2020 Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecturer

Early last year, as plans for the annual conference of the American Education Research Association (AERA) were being finalized, UCLA’s Cecilia Rios-Aguilar was honored with her selection as presenter of the annual Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture for the 2020 conference. The Wallace Foundation Lecture, which focuses on the improvement of educational practice in American schools and particularly the improvement of educational services from students from low-income communities, is one of the major events of the internationally recognized education event.

“I got the call from then-AERA President Vanessa Siddle Walker telling me of my selection and I was so excited,” said Rios-Aguilar. “It wasa great honor for me to know that Vanessa and my colleagues at AERA would think that my work is related to practice because that’s how I see myself. It’s was really great to know the field sees that as well and appreciates that I’m doing a lot of work to change practice.

Rios-Aguilar, an education professor and the associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, has studied community college extensively and had planned to discuss her research on the students they serve and the strengths and challenges of the students, institutions and systems.

“I think research can be used as a form of resistance and I view community colleges as sites of hope, possibility, and transformation,” Rios- Aguilar said.  

In March however, the COVID-19 virus accelerated across the nation and the AERA conference was cancelled.

As the year has passed, the impact of the pandemic has spread across the educational landscape, leaving no sector untouched.  Community colleges have been particularly hard hit, seeing worrisome declines in enrollment as students have struggled with job loss,  stress and illness. Enrollment in California’s community colleges is down an estimated 11 to 12 percent, even more for Black, Latino and Native American students.

The challenges of the past year have only underscored the importance of Rios-Aguilar’s work and she will share her views this week as she gives the 2020 Wallace Foundation Lecture to a virtual audience attending the 2021 AERA Conference.

“I’m trying to help people see we have a responsibility as researchers to these students and institutions, said Rios-Aguilar. “I’m trying to help people see these  institutions differently and that can increase enrollment if we present a different value proposition. Hopefully, I can uplift and elevate the community college sector in this talk, really highlighting the realities of community colleges, who they serve, what is at stake, and how we can better support them.”

Rios-Aguilar’s lecture will center on the importance of researching community collegesand focus on what we can be done to change practice in classrooms and to make classrooms the center point of efforts to better serve low-income and racially and ethnically minoritized students. Drawing on and adapting work she has done with colleagues across her career, she will explore funds of labor knowledge—the assets, experiences  and resources of knowledge that students bring to community colleges.  She hopes to help practitioners and faculty see the rich value of those assets and how we can connect them with meaningful educational experiences. 

Rios Aguilar’s lecture will also make the case that faculty and staff that work in community colleges, particularly those serving students of color, have a lot of knowledge and a lot to say about institutional change that has not always been utilized and that needs to be part of the conversation. Drawing on the work and collaboration of UCLA colleagues Louis Gomez and Rebecca Colina Neri (now at Indiana University) Rios-Aguilar will also discuss funds of systems knowledge– exploring how systems and  institutions can see themselves differently, how we can understand how institutions work, how system works, and how we  can really  work with them to address inequities.

“I think we have a very stratified system of education that says only a few can get to the top, and where we present diversity as a scarce resource,” said Rios-Aguilar. “When we look at a community college where talent and diversity abounds, I  keep thinking, ‘Why can’t we send a different message?’

“I’ve seen so much diversity and richness happening in this sector that does the most for people of color, with the least amount of resources,” said Rios-Aguilar. “These places are a source for us as educators and we really need to spend more time with thinking about them. 

“The theme for this year’s AERA conference is to take responsibility. I think as researchers, particularly at elite institutions, that if we really want to improve the educational prospects and lives of students of color, we’ve got to take this responsibility seriously. And that begs us to look at where they are, in community colleges.” 

The 2020 Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture by Cecilia Rios-Aguilar of the University of California, Los Angeles,“Research as Resistencia: Studying Community Colleges as Sites of Hope, Possibilities, and Transformation through a Systems/Funds of Knowledge Approach,”will take place on Saturday, April 10, 12:20-1:20 p.m. ET (9:20-10:20 a.m. PDT).