An Unimagined Future Worth Pursuing - Lorena Fonseca


I remember leaving that afternoon at 2:30pm; the house was empty. As I was about to embark on a new chapter in my life, I questioned if this was actually happening, but my nervousness was enough to remind me that it was real. As a little girl, I never planned to go to school beyond the 6th grade. Doing so was unlikely and almost impossible. I learned that sometimes, life has better plans for you than you have for yourself. Flashbacks of my mother’s words ran through my head…”how are you going to get there?” My parents didn’t drive so they couldn't take me. Mom was a worrier, which meant that me going off to college was the scariest thing in the world. Dad was quiet about my desire to experience life outside our home as a university student, but I know he was supporting me behind the scenes. When final conversations about moving away began to slow down my father’s reply to my mom was, “dejala ir”, or “let her go”. I was the oldest of six children and I think it was hard for my parents to accept the idea of me not being there everyday. But I knew that I was meant to do this. And so I went, heartbroken that we didn’t say goodbye properly. My friend arrived promptly and we were on the road to Hollister, just about an hour away from my new soon to be home, UC Santa Cruz.

Growing up in Mexico, my dream was to become a teacher. But I never put too much thought into turning my dream into reality since, in Mexico and the town that we’re from, a young girl’s future is often already planned for her. She will complete school up to 6th grade and then learn a trade, like a hairdresser. Beyond 6th grade was a privilege set aside for boys or families with money, mostly because it was expensive and families couldn’t afford to send all their kids to school. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States that I learned about the opportunities for women to continue school beyond 6th grade. Mexico was the only home I knew and such cultural customs were a norm. If it weren’t for our parting, I would’ve missed out on golden opportunities for growth and memorable experiences along the way.

"But I never put too much thought into turning my dream into reality since, in Mexico and the town that we’re from, a young girl’s future is often already planned for her. She will complete school up to 6th grade and then learn a trade, like a hairdresser."

In the beginning, settling in the U.S. was bitter for me because I didn’t know a word of English. When we left Mexico, I was in the 5th grade, so my parents enrolled me into school out here to continue my education. One teacher I remember is Mr. Lindbergh because even though I didn’t know English at the time, he still took the time to teach me math. Math was the only language I knew when I transitioned into a new culture and a new everything. I wasn’t always the smartest girl, but I certainly liked math and was determined to get better. Back in Mexico, teachers asked kids to compete with one another. Two kids would go up to the board to complete a three-digit long division problem. I happen to go against the smartest girl in the class, which was also our teacher’s pride and joy. Well, I won the friendly race, but unfortunately for me, my teacher was actually upset and almost in disbelief that I actually won. I was confused, but I think it was the day I found out that I was good at math.

After completing 6th grade here in the U.S., my mom didn’t want me going to school anymore because in her mind, that was enough. Well, that’s what she learned back in our hometown. The actual words were never really said, but that was just the ideology that came natural. But once I knew that I could continue beyond 6th grade, I grabbed this opportunity and never let go. Strangely, I enjoyed having strict teachers. I liked them because they pushed me beyond my limits and their more consistent in the way they teach, which became part of doing well in school. I paid attention because, in my mind, I wanted to be a teacher. Moving to the U.S. in the beginning was a bitter departure, but having the opportunity to continue going to school transformed this bitterness into something unknown, but also something I could look forward to.

High school was definitely a struggle for me. I focused on math and photography at the time because I didn’t really need English. I wasn’t a good photographer, but it was something fun for me to do. Photography helped me feel like an artist. It was also the beginning of learning to think outside the box. The best part was that I didn’t have to be good at it to enjoy it and learn something valuable from it. Math was different though. Math takes practice to get good. I’d say that the actual practice makes it feel like you’re good. I’m a true believer that practice adds to confidence and once the confidence is there, you want to keep going. I was always good at math because I didn’t need to know English to understand it. The more I practiced though, the better I got. That’s when my math teacher noticed my talents and recommended me to MESA, which I know for a fact changed my life, maybe forever. He gave me a slip of paper with program information in it and said that I should go to this meeting with my parents. Honestly, I had no idea what the program was about. It was so easy to rip up the paper and ignore it, like I think some of my classmates did. But, I was curious, so I told my parents and we went to the meeting. It was one of the best decisions that I’ve made.

"Math was different though. Math takes practice to get good. I’d say that the actual practice makes it feel like you’re good. Then practice adds to confidence and once the confidence is there, you want to keep going".

I learned that MESA, Mathematics Engineering and Science Achievement was a program that helped teach kids about college and encouraged them to study math, engineering and science. Without having mom’s full support to continue school, I needed an outlet and that’s exactly what MESA became. It was hard to get involved with sports after school because mom and dad didn’t drive, so transportation was tough for me. But I was bored and felt so limited; I wanted to do something meaningful with my time. MESA became my thing! It was neat because they took us on field trips to universities where we could listen to speakers at different campuses and they did workshops on how to apply to college. I remember hearing one particular man speak who said that he was once the guy selling oranges on freeway exits. He was Latino and was talking to us as about his path toward becoming an engineer! I’ll never forget his talk. At this point, I still didn’t know English well, I felt voiceless but hearing his talk inspired me to keep going. Somehow I knew I had to keep climbing up the ladder, even if I couldn’t see the destination ahead of me. As a student in MESA, going to college was not an option, but an expectation. The other students, the mentors, the conversations, and the culture itself made college reachable, something to look forward to, and also something you wanted for yourself. I heard things like “all of you here belong in college” and that the goal is to become the “cream of the crop”. I didn't understand what that meant at the time, but our instructors were trying to get us to become the best we could be.

Early on I really didn't feel prepared for college. I just knew that applying for college was something you did if you were part of the MESA program. In high school, I didn’t write a lot of essays, at least not until my senior year. Looking back, that was a big mistake and a sure reason for future struggles. I think that poor standards from teachers definitely mattered there. My AP English teacher was one of the few that helped prepare me by giving us more opportunities to practice our writing through essays. As I was applying for college, I knew I wanted to major in math because it was my passion and it was something I understood. Even though it was my passion, I still struggled with it in college. I didn't know it at the time, but I wasn't being prepared for college. I wasn't taking enough math classes and my high school didn’t offer pre-calculus, so I took AP statistics instead. I was slowly falling behind. In high school, I was part of the top 10%, but when I arrived to UC Santa Cruz I realized I was likely near the bottom, compared to my peers that came from better high schools than mine. I didn’t start taking rigorous math courses until I got to college. Within my first 2 years of college, I withdrew from pre-calculus twice and struggled with other classes. I began as a math major and ended up switching to Sociology and History of Art because I couldn’t keep up. I just thought that I didn’t have the right skills to succeed as a math major. I decided to meet with a counselor to talk about my academic path. To my surprise, the counselor encouraged me to leave UC Santa Cruz, suggesting “it is probably not the right school for you; maybe you should consider going back to Compton College”. Still, I refused to believe this; I fought so hard to get there. I knew this was my school, my dream to be lived, even if I wasn't meant to live it as a math major.

I honestly struggled my first 3 years of college because I didn’t know how to study and I still felt voiceless until around my 2nd year. I had the right mentality about my future in higher education, but I hadn’t developed the skills. The skills really matter. During my high school years, no one actually taught us higher-level math. At Santa Cruz, I had to learn to study on my own and the only way I was going to do it was by teaching myself and asking for help. I remember forcing myself to go to the library and spending so many hours there, trying to teach myself how to focus. Reading was easy, but truly understanding what I was reading took effort. Looking back math skills are unique because they require paying close attention to every single step and putting in the time to practice each step. Critically thinking in math meant understanding what each step meant and why each step mattered. Majoring in art history helped me to become a more creative thinker. Using creativity, along with practicing many problems, over long periods of time at the library helped me improve my math skills significantly! I trained myself to use creativity to solve the problems and treat each problem as a puzzle to solve, a challenge to overcome.

"Looking back math skills are unique because they require paying close attention to every single step and putting in the time to practice each one. Critically thinking in math meant understanding what each step meant and why each step mattered."

It was hard but I did it; by my senior year of college, I actually learned how to study. I got better at being a student once I realized that I needed to think outside the box. Connecting with the Chicano Latino Resource Center helped me gain my voice and a sense of community. I was away from my family, but being around a familiar culture made me feel like I belonged and that I was not alone in my struggle. I became an intern with the resource center, which allowed me to get more involved with events on campus and helped me connect with other students. I even learned about a research center, which exposed me to so much more. Often times, opportunities for growth happen unexpectedly. I took a class that pertained to Latinos and social change. Our professor looked like David Sanders, the Kentucky Fried Chicken man. He was tall, looked like an older white man with a thick, white beard. I soon found out that his last name was Trujillo and that he was Latino. Anyhow, he spoke to the class about graduate school and master’s degrees as a way to create social change. At the time, the idea seemed too distant, again unlikely, and far from what could be reality for me. After all, I wasn't supposed to go past 6th grade. Also, my confidence was still a bit shaken because my first years as a university student were such a struggle. Still, this was new information and another possibility, or path, even if I wasn't considering it at the moment.

The day finally came for me to receive my diploma from UC Santa Cruz, a symbol of all my hard work. But somehow, after all my sweat and tears, I still felt like something was missing. I traced back to my childhood memories, recalling my dream from when I was 5yr old, my dream to become a teacher. But I knew that it was time to start working. While waiting for the right opportunity, I decided to take classes at Compton College, to keep my mind active while I was searching for a job. At some point, I was applying for a tutoring position, when my math professor suggested I should I apply for a Master’s program. I didn’t pay much attention to this idea at first, because I didn’t have a Bachelor’s degree in math. But still, he encouraged me. Dr. Villalobos seemed to have noticed that I understood concepts at a high level. I’d say it was because of the types of questions that I was asking during office hours. I understood concepts in depth because I’d learn how to study by then. Those long hours in the library were continuing to pay off. I took CSU Dominguez Hills to gain a stronger foundation in math before applying for a Master’s program. Soon after I got into CSU Long Beach to pursue Masters in Statistics. Graduating from a UC and going to a Cal State was a difficult transition because I had to learn that UC’s were not the only schools that would lead to success and fulfilling my dreams. I learned that community colleges and CSU’s were just as capable in helping students develop the skills needed to reach their goals. I was even able to teach algebra classes at a CSU Long Beach while obtaining my masters. For me, these places were modest beginnings and important parts to my overall journey.

Getting a master’s degree was never part of my plan for the vast majority of my academic history, but I’m glad that I was open to new opportunities. Looking back, I see that going to college helped me become a critical thinker and a role model for my siblings. Now, years later I am proud to share that four out of six siblings have bachelor’s degrees and the remaining two are currently working towards that goal. In a couple years we will all hold our bachelors and some of us even a master’s degree. Although it was hard and I felt unprepared in the beginning, the struggles I went through helped me develop new skills and taught me to keep trying, even when I didn't succeed as expected on the first try. Today I work as a Program Specialist for the MESA center at Compton College. Once I completed my master’s degree I had an option to go into the business world where statisticians and those who understand data are sought after, but I decided to stay in the education field. I feel that it’s where I belong, where I can create the most positive change in young academics. I want to encourage those students struggling with math and science courses to not give up. There are always ways to seek help, adjust, and improve to keep their career goals in STEM alive. I didn't get this kind of much needed encouragement with the counselor at UC Santa Cruz, and can now understand how valuable it could have been. For this reason, I will continue to strive even more to help students achieve their academic goals. Until now, I’ve kept my dream alive, which is now more defined. I would like to become a teacher, but particularly at the community college level. I will have to take on a few more upper division math courses, but I am confident that I can do so successfully.

While I work towards getting my second Bachelor’s degree, this time in math, I will also continue to work with students to inspire them to continue working toward their highest goals. I’ve learned that dreams can seem far away and obstacles ahead impossible to overcome, but not giving up and asking for help along the way is the key to meeting amazing people, developing new skills, growth, and confidence. It may not be said often enough, but the growth and confidence within us is so important to everything that happens outside of us, in the classroom and real world. Support from parents, family, and good teachers and mentors along the way are a must, but our path also depends on the choices we make for ourselves day after day. I once thought that my future and the path to get there was set, but I was wrong. I’ve learned that our future also depends not giving up when things get hard and finding a way even when obstacles seem impossible. When life pushes us forward or backwards our voices, our choices, and inner confidence are what will move us closer to create our paths toward unimagined futures. For me, math is helping me get there.

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