When Cecelia Rios-Aguilar ’03W (MA), ’07W (PhD) considers the cultural heritage, family and community life, experiences, and interests of her students, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, she sees opportunity and potential.
Rios-Aguilar avoids deficit thinking, which often focuses on language barriers or sociocultural challenges. Instead she recognizes essential skills, cultural insights, talents, and abilities. She considers these the “funds of knowledge” endowed in minority and marginalized students by virtue of their diverse experiences and history. When brought into classrooms, curricula, and student services, these funds of knowledge can provide a solid foundation for learning. This idea forms the basis of Rios-Aguilar’s research.
With diversity, equity, and inclusion as her focus, Rios-Aguilar seeks to understand how students at community colleges in particular make decisions about their education and majors, what institutions do to help or hinder this decision-making process, and how to better incorporate funds of knowledge into institutional programs and policy.
In her research, Rios-Aguilar not only sifts through big data and supportive research, she also gathers information from students and their families, face to face in their homes and communities, to better understand the challenges people of color face in education. She recommends ways for educators, administrators, and policymakers to counter deficit thinking, close achievement gaps, increase persistence and completion rates, and help students transition to four-year institutions or navigate a complicated job market.
“I really want us to take a look back at classrooms as sites of hope, possibilities, and transformations. That’s where your students are … and it’s beautiful to see them. Let’s rethink how we spend time together with them, having honest conversations, and yes, connecting it to content. It is possible, colleagues. We just have to be open and flexible to do pedagogy in a different way.”
Born in Mexico City, Rios-Aguilar was the first of her family to attend college. She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México.
Rios-Aguilar achieved her dream of getting a master’s degree in the United States, earning an MS in educational administration as well as a PhD in education theory and policy from the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester. She became an assistant professor at the University of Arizona and an associate professor at Claremont Graduate University in California.
Rios-Aguilar then moved to UCLA, first directing the Higher Education Research Institute before becoming a professor of education and associate dean of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others, Rios-Aguilar’s research remains focused on the issues that marginalized students face in education. As an expert in the field of diversity in higher education, Rios-Aguilar addresses these issues in lectures, public-speaking engagements, scholarly papers, and in her latest book, Funds of Knowledge in Higher Education: Honoring Students’ Cultural Experiences and Resources as Strengths.
Rios-Aguilar consistently urges institutions of higher learning to collaborate with students through research-based partnerships, active listening, and an approach that recognizes the assets they bring to learning and educational programs. She believes that student supports must be continually reshaped to align with evolving labor markets, and the need to engage students directly in program design and structure has never been more urgent.
Awards and Honors
- Hispanic Research Issues SIG Research in Elementary, Secondary or Postsecondary Education Award Recipient
- Research Scholar Fellowship, Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education (CLASE), College of Education, University of Georgia
- Walter I. Garms Award for Educational Leadership Program, Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester
- Scandling Scholarship Award, Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester