A new study finds that college-aged Mexican American students experienced low self-esteem and more stress as a result of proposed legislation in 2008 to eliminate ethnic studies in Arizona schools.
The new study comes at a time when Arizona has successfully passed Senate Bill 2281, which the researchers say prohibits curricula that advocates ethnic solidarity or is designed for one ethnic group within K-12 education.
The 2008 proposal would have eliminated ethnic studies in K-12 as well as colleges that receive state funding.
While the debate continues as to whether the new law can shut down ethnic studies or ethnic-based organizations in Arizona, it has received wide national attention because of civic responses toward the bill, scheduled to go into effect in December.
Anna Ochoa O'Leary, a UA assistant professor of practice with the department of Mexican American and Raza studies, and Andrea Romero, associate professor in Mexican American and Raza studies and family studies and human development, collaborated on the study to assess what, if any, effect the public discourse and debate about the law had on Mexican American youth.
"Very few studies investigate the effect of increased scrutiny that national and state policies aimed at minority populations have on young people's self-esteem, stress level and depressive symptoms or self-reliance," said O'Leary. "We were interested to see how today's students, based on the historical context of the civil rights movement and today's youth activism, were reacting to the proposed legislation."
Ethnic identity, the researchers said, is widely known to be associated with higher self-esteem, more optimism and fewer depressive symptoms.
The researchers surveyed 99 undergraduates who self-identified as Mexican National, Mexican American/Chicano and measured their responses to the proposed law by noting various factors including civic engagement, stress from discrimination, extent of ethnic or cultural exploration and affirmation, as well as measuring levels of self-esteem and depressive symptoms.
Their results showed that students who had explored their cultural and ethnic identity reported fewer negative health behaviors such as depression or low self-esteem.
Moreover, the students who were better able to positively cope with the proposed legislation were those who reported a range of active civil engagement efforts, from writing letters to government officials to volunteering to wearing a campaign button.
In contrast, those who felt stress but were not civically active had significantly lower self-esteem.
"The senate bill suggests that ethnic studies will lead to more division and a denouncement of civil participation, but no studies have been shown to prove this. In fact, our data indicates the opposite – that those students who knew more about their culture or ethnicity were more accepting of themselves and others, and they coped better with stress due to targeted policy by becoming civically engaged," Romero added.
The researchers plan to collect more data now that SB 2281 has passed to assess what role ethnic studies has on students' ability to cope. They would like to collect data in Tucson area high schools.