“Count Us In: Ethnicity Data Disaggregation” MSISC Initiative

MSISC member and 4th-year doctoral student in the Ph.D. in Higher Education program: Kristine Jan Cruz Espinoza.

Kristine Jan Cruz Espinoza is an inaugural member of the Minority-Serving Institution Student Council (MSISC). She has many other qualifications and achievements, but this time, the work she has done to bring the “Count Us In: Ethnicity Data Disaggregation” to the fore is the focus. Below is an interview with Kristine about the initiative.

Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do for the council?

I am a daughter, sister, partner, Ninang, Tita, and cousin. 

I’m Kristine Jan Cruz Espinoza, and I hold many firsts: I am the first in my mixed immigration-status family to be born in the U.S., a first-generation U.S. college student, and first in my family to pursue a graduate degree. I honor the lineage of strong Pinays who dreamed and pushed onward in the face of challenge in order for me to have an opportunity to be here. I grew up in Carson, nestled in the south bay of Los Angeles County.

I am currently a 4th-year doctoral student in the Ph.D. in Higher Education program and completing a graduate certificate in Program Evaluation and Assessment. Finally, as one of the inaugural members of the Minority-Serving Institution Student Council (MSISC), I get to work with fierce undergraduate and graduate student leaders committed to advocating for racially minoritized and other minoritized communities at UNLV (and beyond).

What is the “Count Us In: Ethnicity Data Disaggregation” project and what does it represent?

Since the start of the MSISC, I have been advocating for “Count Us In: Ethnicity Data Disaggregation,” an initiative aimed to have the university update their collection of racialized data on Students of Color (and in the future, faculty and staff). Specifically, “Count Us In” is about offering options beyond the mandated race and ethnicity categories required by the U.S. Department of Education and to disaggregate, or break down into smaller subgroups, race and ethnicity categories. 

Currently, universities and colleges that participate in the federal financial aid program (like UNLV) are required by the U.S. Department of Education to collect and report on the following two-part race and ethnicity question: (1) Are you Hispanic or Latino? (2) Select one or more of the following races: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, white. With the “Count Us In” initiative, Students of Color can select additional categories beyond the larger racialized categories (e.g., Filipino, Haitian, Mexican).

What do you think your work means to minoritized students?

Research has documented how disaggregated racialized data illuminates information of Students of Color that might not otherwise be distinguished in the aggregate. For example, simply relying on aggregate statistics on Asian American students misses how there are subgroups of Asian American students who could be better served by the institution. In the ACT Research Report, “The Racial Heterogeneity Project: Implications for Educational Research, Practice, and Policy,” the researchers pulled from the 2011-2013 U.S. Census American Community Survey data and showed how educational attainment among Asian American subgroups vary. Within this larger racialized Asian American group, 72.1% of Asian Indian Americans who are 25 years old and older have a baccalaureate degree and higher compared to 26.5% Vietnamese Americans who are 25 years old and older (p. 22). You can imagine what we are missing simply because we are not critically questioning the data collection and analysis centering Students of Color!

If you’re just getting started, I suggest reviewing the ACT’s (2017) The Racial Heterogeneity Report.

How did you come up with “Count Us In”? What was your thought process?

This “Count Us In” initiative is rooted in racial justice and equity. For the title of my initiative, I drew inspiration from the “Count Me In” initiative led by student advocates in the University of California (UC) system. In 2007, the UC system made a systemwide administrative revision to its collection of Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic subgroups.

Things are missed in the aggregate. Broadly, data disaggregation of racialized categories has been a social justice issue for Communities of Color. Adopting data disaggregation in the undergraduate and graduate applications shows an investment in improving UNLV’s capacity to recognize and pay attention to the vast heterogeneity of Asian American, Black, Latinx, Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students. 

Better data collection helps cultivate a culture of evidence and can help campus leaders create targeted programs and services.

What was your favorite part of creating “Count Us In”? What challenges did you face planning your initiative and how did you overcome them?

I think my favorite part is getting the opportunity to even dream that “Count Us In” could happen. A part of me reflects on doing what is right versus what is easy. While not widespread, challenges I face include (a) communicating why data disaggregation is about racial justice and equity for Students of Color and not just an interesting data exercise and (b) understanding that this is a marathon not a sprint. 

It is important that I make clear and ground this initiative in sociohistorical context, namely how ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ data was collected to determine who was non-white (see: the history of the U.S. Census). While this limited space prevents me from recounting the ways in which the collection of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ data has evolved in the U.S. over time (and has been inconsistent!), to me, I would be remiss to not acknowledge how this racialized counting is very much tied to real and material privileges, resources, and opportunities. As such, I consider our current data practices and how we could improve this racialized data collection and analysis to better understand Communities of Color. (It’s a little bit of flipping the narrative, don’t you think?)

As far as being a marathon goes: I want to acknowledge that I am not the first person who thought about ethnicity data disaggregation at UNLV, let alone the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE). In fact, even I am still learning about that advocacy lineage! Remembering both my role in this legacy and why this is important pushes me to keep going, even in the face of challenge. 

Why should the UNLV community pay attention to this initiative? 

As one of the most racially diverse postsecondary institutions in the U.S., UNLV has an opportunity to get to pay more attention to its community, and one way to start is by revising the way we collect and analyze data on, particularly, Students of Color.

Who are some people who contributed behind the scenes that you’d like to thank?

While we can go fast alone, we go further together… and there are certainly people I need to thank. I am probably not alone in this, but Drs. Juanita Fain and Renee’ Watson, first believed in the purpose of the MSISC and, by extension, funded this initiative. It is through their belief and investment that student council members, like me, can imagine initiatives like “Count Us In.” 

I must give credit to student activists in the University of California (UC) System who rallied for data disaggregation in the UC System because they inspired the very title of this initiative and the educational researchers (many of whom are UC alum) who, little did they know, influence my approach to this initiative and even my approach/thinking/dreaming around racial categorization and disaggregation (Drs. Jude Paul Matias Dizon, OiYan A. Poon, Robert T. Teranishi, Cynthia M. Alcantar, Mike Hoa Nguyen, Marc Johnston-Guerrero, Bach Mai Dolly Nguyen). 

Trying to figure out where to attach a “pilot” test of expanded ethnicity subgroups and tribal affiliations was not easy, and I must thank Dr. Judd Harbin and Sunny Gittens for giving me a chance to partner. Now that we are moving on to sharing these piloted expanded subgroup categories with higher level administrators with aims to update the undergraduate and graduate admissions forms, I have found a solid advocate in Dr. Brent Drake, the Vice Provost for the Office of Decision Support. I have to give a special shout out to my advisor, Dra. Blanca E. Rincón, who opened the door for me to be part of the MSISC to begin with, reminded (and continues to remind) me of my voice, and rooted for me along the way. Dreaming alone can only take one so far… and it is incredible to see how far we have come and how far we can go.

Have you done any grant work?

Through the connections I made, I co-authored a research grant that was awarded by APIA Scholars, the nonprofit agency focused on Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) students. We were awarded a $15,000 research grant that has been supporting this effort, specifically looking at how data disaggregation can illuminate undercounting of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.

Moreover, my experiences have hinted at the larger impact of and interest in the data disaggregation effort and scholarship I am engaged in. In 2021, I was invited to speak on two of Nevada Public Radio (KNPR) podcasts (Native Nevada and Exit Spring Mountain) to comment about the complexity and importance of race and ethnicity data disaggregation for Native Americans and Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, respectively.

What are some projects that you are currently working on that you’d like to share?

In addition to my advocacy and research around disaggregation of racialized data, I am also working on a national Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions research project (also funded by APIA Scholars) with Dr. Mike Nguyen (formerly at the University of Denver, and now at New York University), Dr. Pat Nielson (University of Massachusetts, Boston), and Demeturie Toso-Lafaele Gogue (University of California, Los Angeles).

What are some projects that you hope to work on in the future?

I’m reading and tinkering towards my comprehensive examination and dissertation proposal. I’ve been trying to align and maneuver my life around focusing on dual eligible Minority-Serving Institutions (such as institutions like UNLV that are dual Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions and Hispanic-Serving Institutions or AANAPISI-HSIs).