Student Spotlight: Nicole Perez, Sociology

Author: Mary Hendriksen


When a graduate student’s personal story becomes the impetus for a research interest, unique insights and a very special kind of passion can result.

That is precisely the case with Nicole Perez, a third-year doctoral student in Sociology a Joseph L. Gaia Fellow.

Nicole’s primary research interest is understanding when and why Latina/o students drop out of the educational pipeline from high school to college to graduate school. Specifically, she explores the transition from high school to college, with a focus on how Latina/o students navigate familial and peer influences in deciding where to apply and, ultimately, attend college. This past April, Nicole was awarded a highly competitive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support her research.

“Without knowing it at the time,” Nicole explains, “the inspiration for my graduate research began forming when I was making the transition myself from high school to college in Castro Valley, California. As a first-generation Latina, that transition did not happen as easily as it did for some of my peers.”

In fact, Nicole’s decision to enroll at the University of California, Santa Barbara—five hours from home—was met with some resistance from her father.

“He didn’t understand why I would leave home for college when other postsecondary institutions—including a two-year community college—were just a five-minute commute from home.”

It was Nicole’s decision to enroll at UC Santa Barbara, however, that laid the foundation for her current life as a Notre Dame graduate student.

“It opened up numerous opportunities that would not have been available had I stayed home for college. My experiences tutoring high school students at a local Santa Barbara high school informed the honors thesis I completed during my senior year. I also maintained community and outreach efforts begun in high school by organizing youth conferences to inform first-generation Latinos from the surrounding area about the transition to college.”

A critical moment for Nicole—and one that solidified her decision to pursue graduate studies—was when, as a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, she was selected to participate in a summer research opportunity at Princeton University.

“During those research-intensive two months,” she recalls, “I knew that I belonged in academia and, most importantly, that what I wanted to research and what I had to say about that research really mattered.”

After graduating magna cum laude from Santa Barbara, with majors in sociology and Chicano/a Studies, Nicole chose Notre Dame for her doctoral studies.

“The University has numerous resources and opportunities to shape me as a doctoral student. In addition to professional development opportunities offered by my department and the Graduate School, the Institute for Latino Studies the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity are critical resources for my research.”

That research has focused increasingly on the concept of familism, which Nicole describes as “a social pattern whereby individual interests, decisions, and actions are conditioned by a network of relatives thought in many ways to take priority over the individual.”

She is particularly interested in what accounts for the alignment or misalignment in students’ and parents’ preferences for living at home during the college years or going away. Her explorations take the form of both quantitative and qualitative analyses.

“I need both measures,” she explains, “to really understand how familism operates within different families and how it affects whether students complete college.”

Once Nicole completes her dissertation, she hopes to return to the west coast and serve as a faculty member at an institution with a sizeable Latino population.

“I benefited greatly from Latino faculty and graduate students while at Santa Barbara. I know first-hand how critical that presence can be. I want to work simultaneously with the surrounding community by building bridges among parents, students, and schools to help and guide families during critical transition periods in the educational pipeline.”