Women to Watch: Professor Jessica Morales-Chicas

New Faculty 2016 Cal State LA. Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA
Jessica Morales-Chicas Professor, CSULA

By: Erin Acevedo, CMO

As our digital capabilities have grown and matured, we’ve seen our global interest in technology and education grow tremendously. The importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is talked about in every classroom across the country, and new programs to help young adults learn to code and invent are being started every day. Educators are learning how to blend traditional and digital tools and practices to equip students with the skills they’ll need to succeed in an increasingly technology-dependent world. Whether or not you’re an educator, there is so much to learn from this community, and I’m delighted to share one such perspective now.

Professor Jessica Morales-Chicas of Cal State LA works with low-income and minority students to help them pursue careers in science and technology to achieve their educational, professional, and personal goals. I had the great pleasure of becoming friends with Jessica as an undergraduate at UCLA, and have since followed her journey with joy and admiration. She kindly agreed to share her experiences as a student and educator with the Women to Watch community and I hope it inspires you as much as it has me.

What inspired you to earn your Ph.D. and enter the education field? What was your journey like?

As a low-income and first-generation Latina college student, I grew up thinking school was a gateway to success. My parents, who immigrated to this country for a better future, only held a primary level education and worked low-wage jobs; watching their struggle was my main drive to advance in school. I was also inspired by my older sister who was the first in my family to attend college and is now an elementary school teacher.

As a result, as an undergraduate student I worked as a Recreation Assistant at a local childcare center while also studying Psychology at UCLA. Through this work, I became interested in developmental psychology and how to best translate it to impact educational policy. I was fortunate to be mentored by a dedicated graduate student who opened my eyes to what it was like to pursue a Ph.D. Perplexed by the decision to follow a path in either research, policy, or teaching, I graduated and became a preschool teacher. During this time I realized if I wanted to make a macro and multilayered impact on children and youth, I needed to earn a Ph.D. Shortly after, I returned to UCLA and began my Ph.D. journey studying Human Development and Psychology at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

Being in a Ph.D. program is as much about scholarship as it is learning to be a better you. Part of how I stayed grounded was by anchoring my research equity issues and staying engaged in community work. I worked as an Adjunct Instructor at Cal State University, Northridge in the Department of Child and Adolescent Development and served as a Board Member for a new social justice driven charter school. I also taught international middle and high school students Psychology at UCLA’s Summer Discovery Program and founded a Graduate-Undergraduate Mentorship Program for UCLA students. These opportunities allowed me to gain experience in the education field while also serving others.

At the close of my Ph.D. studies, I circled back to where I started, which was finding a position that combined my passions in education: research, teaching, service, and policy. As a tenure-track Assistant Professor in Child & Family Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, I have been able to do just that.

I focus my research and service on racial diversity and equity issues, especially related to educational pipelines in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). I also teach courses on equity, human development, and resilience to students who mirror my background. Lastly, I engage in policy work led by Los Angeles Council President Herb Wesson through an initiative called Embrace LA. This project focuses on adopting a racial equity and inclusion framework for the City of Los Angeles. The biggest lesson I have learned through this educational journey is that choosing a work environment that matches your values and passion is really important for work satisfaction and quality of life.

I saw you recently began a coding and tech program for high school boys. How does the program work? What has the engagement and impact been like so far?

This summer, and for the next two years, I am serving as the Faculty Coordinator and Research Associate for a two-year $400,000 grant program from the Verizon Foundation. The Verizon Innovative Learning Program for Minority Males at Cal State LA was funded to provide a no-cost program for underserved minority middle school males by putting technology in students’ hands, helping them think like entrepreneurs, and by developing the skills needed for success in jobs of the future.

The focus on boys emerged from the idea that oftentimes boys of color face tremendous obstacles navigating the education system (e.g. increased dropout rates, increased chances of entering the school to prison pipeline). Moreover, although there are 4 million available jobs in science and technology, millions of kids from underserved communities don’t know they exist and can’t compete for them because they lack access to technology and tech education. This program allows kids to see the world of possibilities waiting for them and we applaud Verizon for providing free technology, free access, and immersive hands on learning to kids in need.

At Cal State LA we are currently serving 120 Latino, low-income middle school boys from East Los Angeles. We recruited students from LAUSD schools in the surrounding Cal State LA community and made sure not to “cherry pick” based on their STEM achievement or ability. Therefore, we serve students at every ability level. We recently completed our first summer program and were featured on a KLCS News Brief. We are excited to resume this Fall with our monthly courses for boys.How do you see the program growing and developing? What are your long-term goals?

Although we just completed our first summer session, we have a full two years of funding and are still growing and developing. Our program at the Cal State LA campus provides students with the following benefits:

  • Free laptops
  • Coding skills for 20 different mobile apps
  • Relatable mentors who are majoring in STEM
  • Exposure to innovative technologies (e.g. 3D printing and virtual reality)
  • The possibility to earn college credit
  • Preparation to take a Web Professionals exam.

We hope to see students through these goals while also adapting to student needs. Our long-term goal is to keep these students engaged over the course of two years, track their progress, and ultimately make a positive impact in their lives.

In addition to this program, my colleagues Dr. Bianca Guzman, Dr. Mauricio Castillo, Dr. Claudia Kouyoumdjian, and I have developed the STEAM Bridge Program for Girls at Cal State LA. This program was in response to an overwhelming demand for girls to also join our program. Since the Verizon Foundation only funded boys, we decided to create a separate program emulating the Verizon Innovative Learning Program but this time targeting low-income Latinas also in the surrounding East LA community.

Currently we are serving 50 young women and engaging them in coding, various technologies, and art through digital design. Our incorporation of art is critical since budget cuts across California have also omitted art opportunities in our local, low-income public schools. We are currently seeking funding to make this program long-term and sustainable as it is currently run pro-bono.

You began your Ph.D. program just as technology really began to surge as a classroom tool. Do you have any observations about its spread and development over the past five years? What do you think needs to change, if anything?

Technology is a booming industry and we either adapt and learn it or stay behind and lose out on what one day will be the future. Currently, educators face this reality every day while wrestling with the possibility of one day losing their jobs to online or automated instruction. While nothing can replace the genuine smile, authentic care, and emotional connection of a teacher, integrating technology in the classroom can serve as an enhancement when done well.

For example, I see a lot of teachers ban cell phones from their classrooms where instead they could use them as tools for assessment and learning of course material. This year I was recognized by Cal State LA with the Assessment Ambassador Award because I incorporated technology in my classroom to enhance student learning and assessment outcomes.

Using a free program called Kahoot, I generate questions about course content that students see projected in real-time. Students answer each question anonymously using their phones or computers and compete for points based on accuracy. Collectively, we review and discuss the responses while also debunking misconceptions about incorrect answers. Through this group-based and low-stakes testing tool, I assess how well students are learning the material and adapt future lessons accordingly.

Although cell phones and computers in the class can be a nuisance when misused, as educators we need to practice transforming these technologies to our benefit so that we can also participate in the wave of change.

I read a recent study that found children and young adults from kindergarten through college have trouble separating advertisements, or “promoted articles”, from genuine, well-sourced digital articles. In your college courses, is this something you encounter? What are your thoughts on how to incorporate digital literacy alongside traditional materials and subjects?

Finding credible and scholarly articles is definitely a challenge even for college students. Part of my goal in my classes is to make sure students can recognize, read, and synthesize a well sourced article. I believe part of why this is an issue is because instructors tend to rely too much on textbooks. While textbooks are easy to use, they are often expensive and limiting. Instead, complementing textbook usage with digital articles helps promote a different style of reading, writing, and perspective. To assist me with this integration, I make sure to collaborate with our college librarian who provides workshops to my classes on how to find credible and scholarly online websites, newspapers, and empirical articles.

I love that your work places such a strong emphasis on community involvement and engagement. For those with and without children, how can we best support educators and students to help them achieve their goals?

One thing I have learned over the years is that you don’t have to work with or have kids to impact them. Children are being influenced by what they watch, who they talk to, their family members, and community. Therefore, we can all play a part in helping them be productive and successful citizens by just setting a good example and offering a helping hand.

One way to be more impactful is by serving as a volunteer or tutor at your local school, church, non-profit, or childcare center. Another is by donating money to nonprofits that serve students. Lastly, I believe we can’t climb up without reaching down and giving a helping hand. As a woman and person of color who has needed many helping hands across my educational journey, it has been important for me to make sure others around me are equipped with tools to achieve their goals.

If you have a degree or a steady career, chances are there is always someone who can benefit from your mentorship. The easiest way to help students achieve their educational goals is to read college essays, serve on graduate or college school panels, speak at career day, and the list goes on. By lending a helping hand, you never know who you can inspire.

What women are you watching for inspiration and personal growth?

Currently, I’m really inspired by women I’m working with directly. I am most touched by everyday people in education who make their voices heard, hustle to achieve their dreams, and do so compassionately while serving others.

Dr. Sandra Graham is my former graduate advisor who has dedicated her life to social justice through cutting-edge research. She is a Distinguished Professor at UCLA and Presidential Chair in Education and Diversity. She is a notable scholar, published researcher, and recipient of many prestigious awards (e.g. Thorndike Career Award for Distinguished Contributions to Educational Psychology). While her accomplishments speak for themselves, she remains a humble and inspiring mentor. She pushes students to their full potential and has really helped inspire my personal and professional growth.

Dr. Bianca Guzman is the current director of GO Pathway Office Initiatives at Cal State LA. She currently manages several service grants and focuses on providing equity in the P-20 pipeline. We are currently working together on the Verizon Innovative Learning Program. Dr. Guzman is a pioneer at Cal State LA and is not afraid to take risks to challenge the status quo. I appreciate her commitment to the East LA community and her ability to inspire and elevate other Latinas around her.

Manpreet Dhillon is a current Ph.D Student at UCLA in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. I helped mentor her as an undergraduate research student and she has since blossomed into a published author, community advocate, teacher, and leader in education. This summer she worked with me on the Embrace LA Initiative and was also awarded two fellowships to travel abroad to India and Israel to work on important research and policy concerns. Manpreet is fearless and is committed to creating safe spaces, policies, and opportunities that address equity and inclusion.

If you’re interested in contacting Jessica regarding her research or any of her initiatives, reach out to her here.

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