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Ph.D. Candidate Enica Castañeda Inspires Students To ‘Push Back’ On Status Quo

Though Comm/Women’s Studies 205 — Gender, Diversity, and the Media — is considered a gen-ed, the topics covered in class are far from entry-level. Instead, Ph.D. candidate Enica Castañeda focuses on connecting with her students on a human level.

Castañeda’s résumé is impressive, as she graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in chicana/chicano studies, received her master’s from Oxford in evidenced-based social interventions, and is currently pursuing a doctorate from Penn State. In addition, Castañeda is the first person in her family to go to college. Her parents didn’t even graduate high school.

“My generation was the generation that started graduating from high school, so that was even a big deal; not all of us did,” Castañeda said. “I got through high school and I worked; I went back to school and it took me 10 years to get through community college. And then when I got in to UCLA, I had to quit my job — which was terrifying, quitting a job to go to school. I didn’t know how that was going to work, but it did, thank God.”

Castañeda’s teaching style couldn’t be further from the cookie-cutter recitation that so often permeates college classrooms. On top of showing critically-acclaimed movies like “American History X” and “Goodfellas,” as well as lesser-known documentaries concerning social issues on “Media Wednesdays,” Castañeda’s personality enables students to feel comfortable speaking their minds in a judgement-free environment. She routinely implores students to “push back” on the ideals that are deeply entrenched in today’s society.

“I remember when I was a TA my second year, I was TA-ing for two different professors for the same class — it was Comm 150. [They were] two drastically different film classes, and I always felt bad for the students, because I would sit in on both classes, and I said, ‘If I were a student, I would wanna take both classes,’ because they were so different. And then when I got the opportunity to teach this class, I knew that I was going to teach it very differently than everyone else, but I also know I bring a different perspective,” Castañeda said.

“I’m a huge music lover, and I love to dance, but honestly, I think the TV raised me. I was a latchkey kid, my mom was working, and I would always be watching TV. It influenced me a lot. I mean, it helped me with my English, when I first started speaking in English when I was a little kid, but it also taught me about cultures, it taught me about people, it taught me about the good and the bad,” Castañeda said. “But now, I’ve really transitioned away from it and I hardly watch TV at all, because I’m streaming everything. The ones I watch the most are Netflix and [Amazon] Prime, actually. And social media. I don’t read the news conventionally anymore.”

“Some companies, what they’re doing really well, is they’re giving [me] the information the way I want it, even though I didn’t know I wanted it that way. The idea that President Barron is now Snapchatting students with concerns, or the fact that when events are going on on campus, they’re only on GroupMe’s, so if you’re not in those groups, you don’t know what’s going on.”

Castañeda’s doctoral thesis focuses on the complex relationship between Latinos and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I follow things that are going on on social media, and Black Lives Matter is blowing up. And my thinking at one point was, ‘Why aren’t we seeing Black Lives Matter in Spanish?’ because obviously there’s a lot of Afro-Latinos, and I couldn’t find anything,” Castañeda said. “And so what I decided to do was to speak to Latinos about the way they experience the Black Lives Matter movement. Do they feel that they’re part of it? Do the issues speak to them? And so, I’ve been conducting focus groups, which I’m finished with now, where I just talk with a lot of Latinos about how they feel about the movement. What I’m gonna do is create a PSA for a Latino audience — one in Spanish, and one in English — it’ll be the same.

“What came so far from my focus groups, and what people said was, ‘The issues, and the oppression, and the discrimination — all of that is the same in both communities.’ We [Latinos] also have the immigrant stereotype, and the language and things like that, but a lot of the things are the same and we’re not fighting the fight together.”

Students undoubtedly have a lot on their plate, but as a mother of two Castañeda knows the importance of prioritizing the essential aspects of life, like spending time with family and doing what makes one happy. Castañeda’s take on Comm 205 places a premium on genuine conversation and self-discovery in class rather than busy work. Each project and reading that Castañeda assigns holds a distinctive purpose in the learning process. If additional literature isn’t available or students aren’t challenged enough to ponder their beliefs, there simply isn’t a reading quiz that week.

“I think students are just busy — they’re working, they’re trying to be involved, they have friends, they’re in relationships, and they’re going through their first breakups or maybe their first makeup. And I think that’s hard. Sometimes I wonder, and I really ask myself this, ‘Is it fair to ask students to start college at 18?’ You’re making so many important decisions, and you’re young, you just graduated from high school. And that’s a lot,” Castañeda said.

“The other thing is, I think, also pressures. There’s a lot of deficit thinking on college students. Even around here, you hear students saying that they’re not applying themselves, or they’re slacking, or they’re dumb, or who knows what? And I really push back against that. I mean, you guys, there’s 80 of you [in Comm 205]. None of you have blown off an assignment for me. You guys are all trying, you’re doing your work, and it’s not that; there’s something else.

“I was talking to a student the other day about [career choices] and she was telling me she didn’t know what she wanted to do. And so I told her, big secret — there’s a lot of people in graduate school that don’t know what they wanna do either, so don’t feel bad, you just kinda get there eventually,” Castañeda said.

“The big one is money, because I think the structure of the universities, and the ways that they’re for-profit now even when they’re public, is all on the back of students. So if you don’t have parents who can pay for it for you, you’re coming out of here with a lot of student loans, and you’re getting jobs that are paying a lot less,” Castañeda said. “It used to be that people could work in labor. The husband would go and work some labor job, the wife would stay home, and they would have a house, and they would have a car or two; they’re kids would go to college. And that’s just not the case anymore. You can’t work over the summer to pay your tuition — it’s so expensive. Money is huge from the beginning to the end.”

Castañeda routinely assists her students in looking beyond the surface level by allowing them the space to engage difficult topics, ones that press at their conscience, at their own pace. Her advice for students to see the world through a new paradigm takes multiple forms.

“If money wasn’t an issue, I would tell everyone to travel. I think there’s nothing like going to other countries to really see. I especially think this about poverty. Mexico, I’ve gone to a lot of times, and I’ve gone to other countries now, but when you see the extreme poverty…it really puts our poverty into perspective,” Castañeda said.

“There’s not a lot of right answers, and it’s not about learning something, but about learning how to think. I just want them [students] to question everything. Go out into the world and don’t take everything at face value. Do the research, check on it, see what you believe. Does it align with you? But mostly I think the big one is — be for people. So often the media sets us up to normalize dehumanization, to normalize capitalism, to normalize cruelty. And I think we really need to push back on that and say, ‘That shouldn’t be normal.'”

Perhaps it’s the fact that she thoroughly enjoys staying up to date with the latest developments on social media, or that she often plays West Coast rap videos on the projector before class, but Enica Castañeda just has that rare ingredient that makes a college-defining professor.

“Believe in yourself. You’re good enough, you’re doing enough. And don’t be closed-minded; open yourself up to people. We’re more alike than we are different, all of us, in our many different ways. I grew up very poor in Los Angeles and other places in Southern California. Then I ended up here; I mean, it’s possible, you can get here.”

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About the Author

Ethan Kasales

Ethan’s a senior journalism major who grew up in Lemont, a few minutes from campus. When he’s not covering Penn State sports, you can usually find him golfing or teaching snowboarding at Tussey Mountain. Feel free to email him at [email protected]

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