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Sophia Ángeles: Urban Schooling Alumna Joins Faculty of Penn State’s College of Education

By Joanie Harmon

Research focuses on the experiences of newcomer immigrant youth, their access to college and careers. 


When Sophia L. Ángeles ('22, Ph.D., Urban Schooling) recently moved to State College, Pennsylvania, the California native was surprised to see a growing immigrant community in a mostly rural area of Pennsylvania. 

“Pittsburgh is two-and-a-half hours to the west, and Philadelphia is three-and-a-half hours to the east,” says Ángeles, who joined the faculty of the College of Education at Penn State this past January. “Surrounding State College are smaller towns. There are a lot of farm workers. In town, there is an Asian and a growing Guatemala Maya population working as front-line workers. The student population in town is becoming more linguistically diverse. It’s amazing that anywhere in the U.S., you might come across people and cultures that you might have come across before, in different contexts.”

As an assistant professor of multilingual education, Ángeles is one of a small, but growing number of Latina faculty at Penn State. Her research expertise includes immigrant youth and families, multilingual learning in the United States, immigrant youth and families, Latinx education, education policy, and minoritized students’ access to college. Her experience as a former educator working in multilingual and immigrant communities informs her study of how and why language programs are designed in ways that translate into differential access to college and career readiness opportunities for high school newcomer youth. 

Ángeles’ scholarship also delineates how the educational trajectories of newcomer youth are shaped by immigration policies and their identity as minoritized youth. Her dissertation titled, “Seguir Hasta Donde Pueda Seguir: High School Newcomer Youth’s Underexplored Future Aspirations,” examines how language and immigration policies results in newcomer youth having limited access to explore, prepare for, and attain their college and career goals. 

Ángeles has been honored with the 2021 Haynes Lindley Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship and the 2022 AERA Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research SIG Best Article Award. Her work has appeared in scholarly journals such the Harvard Educational Review, the Journal of Urban Teaching, Learning, and Research, Language Arts, and the California Council on Teacher Education CCNews. Ángeles achieved her M.S. in school counseling at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and her B.A. in psychology at Cornell University.

What is it like being in the College of Education at Penn State?

Our dean is working on changing our policies and practices so that we can become a college of education known for its anti-racist pedagogy and scholarship. It’s exciting to be here and witness how faculty, students, and community work together to center social justice in all we do. 

Becoming an anti-racist college is not something that happens overnight. Structural and cultural changes need to occur and be sustained long-term. As such, I am looking forward to making the college a more welcoming place for Latinx students as well as growing the Latinx graduate and faculty pipeline.

What was your experience in school as a bilingual student?

I’m the child of immigrants, and I grew up as a bilingual child. My mom was adamant about not following teachers’ call for her to stop speaking Spanish to us. It’s important to remember that I grew up when California shifted to “English only” policies amidst a growing anti-immigrant sentiment. 

Later on as a teenager, I began to note how many family friends who had arrived as teenagers didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to go to school, even though some of them did express wanting to do so. In high school, I was a TA for a sheltered ELD classroom for recently arrived immigrant students. This was a very eye-opening experience for me. Even though the students were Latino just like me, and even though we were Spanish speakers, our experiences were vastly different. I was very privileged in that I was able to take AP classes and was collegebound. My peers also were treated differently by teachers. That experience has informed the work I do, because I don’t feel that those inequities should continue to persist. 

What is unique about the experiences of newcomer youth?

My work focuses on recently arrived immigrant youth and their experiences in learning the language and adapting to the culture. I’m interested in their transitions after they finish high school: what opportunities they have, what are their future aspirations, and how schools are preparing them for those futures - or not preparing them.

Unlike in the elementary school context, where being an English learner tends to afford resources, the literature tells us there tend to be negative effects to being labeled an English learner in secondary contexts, especially in high school. There are structures in place that really start limiting access to college-preparatory curriculum, including AP courses, as well as extracurriculars. Newcomer youth is also a population where youth might be undocumented or trying to adjust their legal status. So, my work focuses on the intersections of educational policy, specifically language policy, and immigration policy. I’m looking at the label [of] “English learner” and legal status, and the compounding effects that intersection has on their lived experiences and on their access to opportunities to prepare for the future that they're imagining for themselves.

Has any progress been made in expanding this access and opportunities for recently-arrived English learner youth?

The school site of my dissertation study was concerned about the low college and career readiness rates of the English learners. The newcomer youth population is a sub-population of the larger English learner population. California has 18% of its K-12 student population [designated] as English learner. Unfortunately, this is the same percentage of high school seniors who are designated as English learners that are graduating as college and career-ready. 

That school was grappling with that problem. One of the things they ended up doing was moving towards a model where students would not be isolated in ELD classes but instead would be able to take grade level English courses. That’s one of the challenges actually, that a lot of schools will prevent newcomers from taking grade level courses, so they’re stuck in ELD 1, ELD 2, or ELD 3, and so by default, they are never going to be college-ready because they are missing access to English college prep courses.

There was a recent New York Times article, “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs,” that focused on migrant youth who are arriving joining the labor force and working in exploitative conditions. They’re both going to school and working, or just working. Newcomer youth whom I interviewed shared similar experiences to those highlighted in the NYT article.

Most of all the educators whom I collaborated with knew their students are working. But, especially with the pandemic, I’m not sure that schools are as flexible as they could be or if they are thinking about alternative ways of providing educational opportunities while still recognizing that students have an economic need to work. I don’t know that many educators are aware the financial debt newcomer youth are trying to pay off; some are $10,000 in debt. Oftentimes, they're still paying off the debts they’ve accumulated on their journey to the U.S. and also [making] financial contributions toward their families that they left behind.  

Our [former] dean, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, [wrote his] dissertation … published in 1989, [examining] the high school experiences of Central American immigrant youth. Decades have passed and yet, immigrant youth continue to have little access to information about how to attain their goals. It’s disheartening, but also motivating in terms of why we need to continue doing this work to uplift our immigrant youth. 

You mentioned 18% of California youth are English learners. Do you have a snapshot for the rest of the nation?

California definitely is one of the states that has the most. As of 2019, 10.4% of students are designated as English learners across the U.S. Since the 1990s, there have been people moving from California, or even from Mexico and Central and Latin America to the Southeast and the Midwest. Pennsylvania right now has seen a growing number of linguistically diverse students. There is a great need for more bilingual teachers. There are a couple of school districts in Pennsylvania where the population has grown overnight, and they don’t have any bilingual staff or support. The search for my position was because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has these needs. 

Urban areas tend to be very diverse. Philadelphia has always had children of immigrants or immigrant youth. However, Hazelton, Reading, and Allentown are areas an hour away from Philadelphia that have been experiencing a change in demographics. Some of those cities have had a strong anti-immigrant sentiment in the past, often related to English-only policies. Pennsylvania is a very interesting place to be studying issues of immigration, language, and education.

How has your education at UCLA influenced your career, both as a researcher and a faculty member? 

I ended up choosing UCLA because when I started doing research as an undergraduate a lot of the scholarship I was interested in was from scholars at the UCLA School of Education like Dr. Daniel Solórzano with Latina/o/x Critical Race Theory, and the work of Dr. Marjorie Faulstich Orellana with culturally linguistic diverse students. At the time that I applied, Drs. Carola Suaréz-Orozco, Pedro Noguera and Lucrecia Santibañez had recently joined the faculty. The timing worked in terms of me arriving, surrounded by all these scholars. 

My co-chairs were Drs. Marjorie Faulstich Orellana and Cecilia Rios-Aguilar. Marjorie sought out Cecilia to be my co-advisor because even though I graduated with an emphasis on urban schooling, my work very much looks at post-secondary transitions. This co-advisor relationship  really helped me as I was able to rely on them both for different expertise. I also accessed resources from different communities. At one point, I was attending Cecilia’s RAC and taking other HEOC classes. Being in conversation with people in HEOC was very beneficial. 

I also had to work. A lot of the research experiences that I had, whether with the UCLA Labor Center or Marjorie, were because of that need. Working on a variety of research projects dovetailed into informing different aspects of my research agenda, and I feel like I’ve ended up becoming an interdisciplinary scholar. Being able to find community across campus and being exposed to different intellectual conversations, like taking all my cognate courses in Chicana/o and Central American Studies, has been very helpful in terms of being more acquainted with the literature across these different subjects.

Currently, I’m working on a on a paper that examines the experiences of two bilingual teachers, and how they navigated the challenges of what they thought was a lack of support in how to best teach newcomer youth in their classrooms. And, in collaboration with another colleague from UCLA, we're also writing about how labels end up obscuring immigrant youth’s particular experiences. Labels can allow us to see things. Sometimes that means we attend to only thing which in turn means other aspects of students’ lives get invisibilized.