Harvard Graduate School of Education welcomes to its faculty Professor Adriana Umaña-Taylor, an expert in understanding and cultivating racial and ethnic identity as a developmental competency in youth, and its impact on academic success and interpersonal relationships.
“Adriana is one of the leading authorities on scholarship related to minority adolescents and ethnic identity development. Her research in these areas is truly groundbreaking, and it is becoming increasingly critical to a nation that is more diverse with each passing day,” said Dean James Ryan. “She is a distinguished, thoughtful, powerful voice on issues of race and ethnicity, and an engaging and inclusive teacher. I am incredibly happy that she will be joining our senior faculty.”
At HGSE, Umaña-Taylor will continue her ongoing research, including looking at how experience with “ethnic-racial discrimination is a key risk factor for ethnic-racial minority youth,” particularly for their academic adjustment and academic performance.
“It is important that we understand how youth develop the part of their identity that pertains to their race and ethnicity, and how it can be a protective resource for them,” said Umaña-Taylor. “Youth who have experienced discrimination but have a strong understanding of their ethnic-racial identity are less negatively affected by such experiences than their peers who do not have as strong of a sense of who they are in this regard.”
Umaña-Taylor has designed a school-based intervention — piloted and tested in Arizona — to give adolescents tools and strategies to learn more about their backgrounds. She found that students who used these tools showed increases in how much they thought and tried to learn about their backgrounds, and how comfortable they felt about this part of their identities. They also showed gains in grades and self-esteem, and decreases in depressive symptoms.
Another project led by Umaña-Taylor is a longitudinal study of adolescents in two different high schools in two distinct geographic areas – Michigan and Arizona — which poses the question:
Do adolescents select their friends based on their racial and ethnic identities, or do adolescents’ ethnic-racial identities change as a function of their friends’ ethnic-racial identities?
“One of our key hypotheses is that early in high school, when students are developmentally younger, we might see more peer socialization as the driving force behind adolescents’ ethnic-racial identity development, but then as students get older, we may see more selection processes, with students being more likely to befriend those who are more similar to them with respect to their sense of ethnic-racial identity,” said Umaña-Taylor.
By following and surveying ninth- through 12th-grade students three times over a period of two years, and by using social network analysis, the researchers hope to develop a greater understanding of how we make friends and what that means for our identities.
“Ultimately, the reason we think this is so important,” said Umaña-Taylor, “is because this identity work is critical for youth to be able to have success in school; feeling secure in terms of who they are and how they fit into the social landscape of their schools and our society helps them focus on their studies and futures.”
Umaña-Taylor comes to HGSE from Arizona State University, where she was a professor since 2012. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a dissertation titled, “Examining a model of ethnic identity development among Mexican-origin Latino adolescents living in the U.S.”
Umaña-Taylor will be on research leave until fall 2018, working on an exploratory project in Medellin, Colombia, with La Universidad de San Buenaventura. “We will be exploring how some of the ideas and theories I’ve been advancing here in the United States could apply to marginalized populations in Colombia, particularly with regards to the large Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities there,” said Umaña-Taylor, who will also be a visiting research professor at La Universidad de San Buenaventura during her time there.
“I want to explore the role of socioeconomic status in Colombian identity development, and to understand what implications there might be for our domestic work,” said Umaña-Taylor. “In the psychological literature in Colombia, very little has been examined with respect to youths’ cultural identities. In political science and history, this issue is more prominent and it’s clear that marginalization is happening along the lines of race and ethnicity. But scholars focusing on youth development have not studied how this is relevant for adolescents’ identity formation, nor have they explored the perspectives of individuals in communities.”
Though she will be in Colombia until fall semester 2018, Umaña-Taylor is getting her research lab at HGSE up and running, and is interested in communicating with current and prospective HGSE students about her work.