Marta Tienda grew up poor in the inner ring suburbs of Detroit. Her mother died when she was 6, but her father assured her life would be better if she worked hard and finished high school.
She listened to her father, an immigrant from Mexico who raised five children in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Alternating between jobs as a factory worker, agricultural laborer, and handyman, her father never lost faith in the power of education to improve almost any circumstance.
Tienda went on to graduate magna cum laude from Michigan State University in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. She also earned master’s and doctoral degrees in Sociology from the University of Texas at Austin.
She is a Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology at Princeton University. Her research focuses on racial and ethnic differences in measuring social inequality. She is President of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and serves on various boards, including the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., among others. She has served in administrative roles such as Director for the Office of Population Research and the Founding Director of the Latino Studies Program at Princeton University. Her contributions to the field include more than 200 research papers and numerous books as well as various research grants over 32 years.
Tienda now will receive an honorary doctoral degree in science from Michigan State University at its Fall 2022 commencement ceremony for doctoral, master’s, and educational specialist degree recipients on Friday, Dec. 16.
“I don’t regard myself as special. What I had was opportunity. I came of age when opportunity was there…The next generation deserves the same commitment to public education that my generation enjoyed.”
However, it won’t be her first time joining MSU’s commencement ceremonies as an honored guest. She delivered the keynote address to doctoral degree recipients at MSU’s Fall 2020 commencement, which was held virtually. In that address, Tienda challenged graduates to find a social purpose, to use their voice, and to act to support their shared destinies. She compared the social dislocation of the late 1960s to the current turbulence. She reminded her audience that consensus and compromise allowed the nation to heal then and it can again, but only through building on shared destinies.
“That what unites us is so much stronger than the minor differences fostering division,” she said, quoting the findings of a study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of which she is a member.
But her research about socioeconomic inequality isn’t about her, she said. It’s about the power of education to shape lives.
“I don’t regard myself as special,” Tienda said. “What I had was opportunity. I came of age when opportunity was there. Today, those pathways have narrowed. College is less affordable today because tuition has soared and financial aid has not kept pace with need. The next generation deserves the same commitment to public education that my generation enjoyed.”
The Promise to Commit
Tienda joined the Princeton University faculty in 1997. Before that, she held appointments at the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. A leading expert on poverty, migration, and employment among Latinos, she has lectured widely on underinvestment in public education.
Her research has focused on demographic inequality and access to higher education, a common theme throughout her work.
Tienda admits that while her father placed a premium on education, she never thought much about school beyond high school. As a young teen, she dreamed of becoming a beautician. “College was for rich people,” she told her 7th grade teacher. But when her teacher countered that Tienda could go to college on a scholarship, her world changed.
Tienda thought about what her teacher had said when it came time to visit and apply to colleges. She also remembered the support of her neighbor, Lucille, who encouraged her education every step of the way. In 11th grade, Tienda went on a field trip to MSU with the Girls’ Athletics Association (GAA). They ate at the MSU Union, and she remembered slipping a tiny bowl that had served fruit cocktail into her pocket.
“That dish was my promise to commit to enroll,” she said. “I also committed to bringing it back when I was admitted. I got my acceptance letter in November 1967. Unfortunately, the bowl had gotten lost in my chaotic household by then.”
Tienda’s dad drove her to campus her first day in September 1968. And when she showed him her first grades from MSU, he posted them on the bulletin board at his job.
“He didn’t understand the point system of grading. He only knew ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’, ‘d,’ but that didn’t matter,” she said. “He was so proud I was going to college.”
While Tienda loved studying Spanish literature, she discovered her passion through a junior year internship where she worked in Alpena certifying migrant farmworkers for food stamps. That job exposed her to legislative issues and their effect on the lives and opportunities of disadvantaged people. The more she learned, the more she wanted to organize and act and effect change. After graduation in March 1972, she landed a job with the MSU Extension Service, developing nutrition programs for Michigan’s growing Hispanic population.
“The internship and extension job were pivotal for who I became,” she said. “MSU gave me an education. They defined opportunities and gave me chances. And they gave me experiences that forever changed my life.”
“MSU gave me an education. They defined opportunities and gave me chances. And they gave me experiences that forever changed my life.”
Tienda went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin where she switched her focus to sociology and economics. A project about female employment in Mexico led her to further define her expertise in data-driven demographic research, particularly as it relates to Latino populations.
After graduate school, Tienda embarked on a career rooted in research, teaching, and advocacy. She was offered posts at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and later, the University of Chicago where she engaged in both quantitative and qualitative analyses of people living in poverty.
Tienda said a lot of her early work was about defining the attributes that characterize inequality — dimensions like age, national origin, race, and immigrant status. But she wanted to take things further, to move from simply defining the ‘what’ to researching the ‘why’ inequalities arise and persist.
“For me, it’s all about understanding what must be equal for opportunities to be equal,” she said. “Those are the big questions. It’s important to chisel away at these so we can see what kinds of interventions can move the needle.”
Passing the Baton
She retired from Princeton University at the end of 2021, but still continues her work, just in a different form. She gives lectures to help persuade communities to reinvest and rebuild public education.
“Opportunity has shrunk in this country,” she said. “That troubles me. My current charge is to look at where mobility is stagnating and where we have to re-energize to reduce inequality, particularly via education.”
Tienda remembers her father’s continual encouragement to finish school. It was a belief fostered in part by his experiences, as well as the commitment he made to Marta’s mother shortly before her death.
“I’ve had a great run and was given the opportunity to think beyond academia to how social science applies to the general public. I feel strongly now that it’s important for us baby boomers to step aside and make room for this very talented generation to take our place.”
“My mom made daddy promise that we all would graduate from high school,” she said. “They both knew the pain of not being able to go to school and the limits that were placed on their lives. They didn’t want that for us.”
Tienda doesn’t want that either for today’s students and is committed to ensuring educational access remains open to everyone. Public education, she said, should not become a private good.
“I’ve had a great run and was given the opportunity to think beyond academia to how social science applies to the general public,” she said. “I feel strongly now that it’s important for us baby boomers to step aside and make room for this very talented generation to take our place.”
(This article was updated from a previous version that was published on the College of Arts & Letters website in December 2020.)