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What is Deficit Thinking? A Q&A with SAA Candidates Ariadne (Addie) Cheng ’22 and Michael Paz ’21

October 23, 2020

  • Ariadne (Addie) Cheng ’22 and Michael Paz ’21
Your program title is “Where they ought to be: Tools for combating deficit thinking with minoritized students.” What is deficit thinking and how does it affect minoritized students specifically?

Michael Paz: Educational scholars describe deficit thinking as a needs driven approach to education. This is to say that there’s a focus on perceived “problems” rather than centering on opportunity and potential. An example of this is that a first generation pre college student is thought to be at a deficit because they do not have the support of an independent college admissions consultant to guide them through the application process or generational knowledge of how to navigate the college system. It ignores what strength can be drawn by one’s community, resistance to systemic oppression, and communication skills brought to the college.

Addie Cheng: Deficit thinking is the idea that students from non-dominant identities in American society (i.e. not cis-heterosexual white males) need to “catch up” to the rest of society in order to be successful. American society and education systems were created by and for white men, and little has changed since their inception. This affects the kind of knowledge that is valued in our society, as well as which identities, lifestyles, careers, morals, and learning styles, among others, are catered to and recognized as legitimate. Many college diversity initiatives, while well-intentioned, have the effect of “reinforcing perceptions of inherent intellectual inadequacies” because they aim to “fix the newcomers” rather than fix the system that sees them as deficit[1].

MP: When we think about how deficit thinking affects minoritized (like the scholars we study, we use the verb form of “minority” to draw attention to the oppressive, outdated, and damaging systems that actively push students to the margins of education) students, it is higher education telling students “You are not enough. Your lived experiences, identities, and histories do not matter in these white spaces because they do not fit the mold we’ve built and reinforced.” Deficit thinking affects how students view the institutions and bodies they inhabit.

AC: Deficit thinking can cause a lot of harm to minoritized students, both academically and psychologically, when they begin to internalize their status as “less than”. Research has shown that it causes anxiety and even a self-perpetuating cycle of lower achievement in minoritized students of all ages[2].

What experience (personal, professional, educational, or other) led you to pursue this topic?

MP: I think one of the hardest things students are asked to do is to believe in themselves while living in a world where whiteness is privileged above all else. I saw it when I worked as a high school teacher and explored with students why a white dominated curriculum did not represent or support them. I saw it with my work at an educational nonprofit, in which I supported undocumented folx that, despite an educational system and society proclaiming that they were “less than”, worked incredibly hard to gain access to higher education.

AC: Like Michael, I’ve seen firsthand what being marginalized by society and our education system does to students’ confidence and self-perception. In my work as a Career Services Advisor at a local trade school, I frequently see students writing off their lived experiences, family lives, employment, and even bilingual skills as “unrelated” or unimportant to their future academic and professional careers. They work hard for years to support their families and they think it doesn’t matter because our society tells them it’s not relevant.

AC: If more educators understood how to validate the experiences and knowledge of minoritized students, it could be transformative for not just the students but also our society as a whole.

MP: It is important that minoritized students understand how powerful, valuable, and important the capital they bring to the classroom is. Our presentation is truly the pursuit to make clear that all students deserve to be seen and heard.

How has your own remote learning influenced your interest in translating this information to be applicable to remote programming?

MP: When we were planning in the summer, we had hopes of being able to have break out groups and physical interactions with our audience at the conference. Given our current circumstances, we’ve had to pivot from that sort of “conference-y crowd work” and think about how to be engaging and authentic with our audience. I think a part of that will include an element of personal storytelling and some wizardry with Zoom. Addie’s a savant with reorganizing our ideas into coherent guiding questions and exercises, so I’m hoping she does all the work for us. Just kidding, but maybe?

AC: Yes, this is true. *Nods seriously* Also, I am so grateful to our professors Dr. Valles and Dr. Sifuentez for leading the way and showing us how to make Zoom class engaging and interactive. We will definitely be taking some ideas from both of them.

Why did you choose the SAA program at Lewis & Clark?

MP: I care a lot. I think that’s at the core of anyone pursuing a career in student affairs and education in general. It’s part of the fabric we are weaving together to create a more equitable space for all students. The SAA program doesn’t just have a class that tells you how to care; I think it’s part of the lens the program uses in all of its classes and is central to its mission. Our professors push us to care so much about education that we lean into questions of who has power and privilege and why. In doing so, we are no longer transfixed in the dominant narratives of higher education; we are pushed to fight for representation of minoritized students and identities that have been often left out of the picture. I chose this program because it is the greatest honor to lead and learn alongside others that care as much as I do about changing the landscape of higher education.

AC: The equity and social justice focus of the SAA program appealed to me because I felt strongly about equity and social justice as essential goals of student affairs work in an education system that has failed so many people. Higher education has the capacity to bring enlightenment to individuals and society, but I believe that by not enabling minoritized students to succeed, we are both harming those students and crippling our society by not allowing diverse forms of knowledge and ways of thinking, being, and knowing to come to light. There’s nothing enlightened about only acknowledging one perspective in perpetuity. The SAA program has empowered me to find ways to disrupt that.

Please describe an experience or event that you have had while in the program that you feel has caused you to grow as a scholar/practitioner in an unexpected or impactful way.

MP: I work at the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities as a conduct officer. I meet with students when there’s a possibility of a college policy violation. It definitely gives off the vibe of “you’re going to the principal’s office” most of the time. Through what I’m learning in the SAA program and great mentors within the department, I’ve been able to establish a space for dialogue with students about their actions, what motivates them, and how they can be accountable for harms they may have caused. Because of this, the space we (student and myself) share no longer is limited to abiding by a simplistic dichotomy of “you’re wrong, we’re right”; we can both acknowledge that there is space to learn together. I’m inspired by the vulnerability and strength that students show during these meetings as it helps me grow as a student affairs practitioner and person.

AC: I’m not going to lie, there were definitely a lot of growing pains in my first year of the program. Our professors challenge us daily to question dominant hegemonies, internal biases, and even our own identities so that we can better understand how our work impacts our students and begin to imagine ways to disrupt oppressive systems and enact positive change. I don’t think there was one experience or event, but it has accumulated over time and I think the context of the pandemic has really brought it all to a head. It constantly reminds me of the mutuality of our shared human experience, and I have become hyper aware of the barriers our students face on a daily basis, which are compounded further for those with marginalized identities. Our work feels more urgent now than ever.


[1] Clayton-Pedersen, A., & Clayton-Pedersen, S. (2008). Making excellence inclusive in education and beyond. Pepperdine Law Review, 35(3), 611–648. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/plr/vol35/iss3/3/

[2] Valencia, R. R. (1997). The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice. London; Washington, D.C.: Falmer Press.

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