I was there too: From uncertainty to a path toward a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering - Crysthal Alva

I am a first-generation Latina college student. I can't think of anyone else in my family with a degree in higher education. I come from humble hardworking parents who have done their best to raise four girls. I’m the oldest, trying my best to be a strong role model for my sisters. For as far back as I can remember my parents often told me to do well in school because they wanted me to have a good job. They wanted me to have the opportunities that they didn't have growing up. They reminded me that they wanted more for our future. Aside from their words of encouragement, I also saw the lifestyle they lived every day. They both cleaned apartments and homes for a living. It's a hard job! I was their babysitter afterschool because they often worked long hours. For these reasons, I had to figure out the specific path I would take as a college student. Their words and support mattered greatly though. I used those words to remind myself that school would be the best path toward a career, not just a job. Although I didn’t always have a clear path, I started at the community college and worked my way up. I didn’t know it yet, but math played a big role in my future successes. I’ve just begun a Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering. I love what I study and I’m happy to say that I don't worry about having a good job when I’m done. I will have a career and the ability to make a difference as a professor or researcher. I will have the option to choose. ​

I didn’t start off as a great student. I had a very limiting mentality that simply thought about graduating. It was a simple goal, but I was missing a clearer picture of what school was for. I wasn't excited about school just yet. After school, my routine was to go home and take care of my sisters, cook, clean, and wait for my parents to get home. I played soccer, cross country, and track my senior year because I thought it would make my senior year fun. And it was. I remember several competitive games, events and rallies, but overall, I didn’t do so well in high school. The bad news was that when it came time to graduate, I was stuck with a 2.4 grade point average. What was I supposed to do with that? My bad study habits caught up to me. I figured that no university would take me with those grades, which led me to start at the community college. I was going to high school every day, but I still didn’t understand the importance of everything that was happening inside the classroom. I’d graduated high school, but never contemplated the idea of becoming an engineer yet.

"I didn’t start off as a great student. I had a very limiting mentality that simply thought about graduating".

Once I was at the community college I was constantly changing or thinking about changing major during my first year. I had no clear direction until I decided to speak to a counselor during my second year. We had a simple conversation about my interests, but still didn’t know what to say when asked to choose a specific academic path or major. I told her that all I knew was that I liked math. I was always the first to finish my multiplication tables as a little girl. Math made sense to me. My counselor recommended that I take an introduction to engineering class. Asking for help and taking her advice was the best thing I could have done. I took the class and found every topic very interesting. I was intrigued and excited about wanting to know more. We had guest speakers during one particular class, which were professional engineers who talked about different engineering fields and the type of work they did. I was drawn to mechanical engineering. At the time I was into roller coasters. I didn’t simply like riding them, I remember in high school thinking about building one someday. I was curious about how they were built and the mechanics involved that allow them to twist and turn at such high speeds, all while keeping people safe. Building my own roller coaster someday was just a silly thought, but that thought drew my attention to mechanical engineering.

"I had no clear direction until I decided to speak to a counselor during my second year. We had a simple conversation about my interests, but still didn’t know what to say when asked to choose a specific academic path or major"

For the first time I was motivated to want to learn. My interests were sparked, which allowed me to know what school was for. I wanted to become an engineer! My first move was to start taking math and physics prerequisite classes. Here is where I found out that I needed to improve my study habits because the ones in high school would not be enough. One particular study strategy that helped was that I started doing math problems on my own. I often practiced math problems at Starbucks because I couldn't focus at home. I used the book and class lectures to help me make sense of everything. When I had questions, I joined study groups. However, I knew that joining study groups too soon was a bad idea for me because we often did more socializing than studying. Practicing most math problems on my own meant that I understood most of the material. Still, I also learned the most difficult parts alongside friends. All of my classes that were preparing me to transfer as an engineering major were challenging. They required many hours outside the classroom. Prioritizing my time was important to dedicating enough study time. Still, I was so happy that I found math interesting because it kept me practicing and interested in such hard classes.

"For the first time I was motivated to want to learn. My interests were sparked, which allowed me to know what school was for. I wanted to become an engineer!"

I struggled through some physics classes, which only meant that I needed to dedicate more time. By then I was working as a cashier at a taco shop and another restaurant. This was becoming an issue because managing my time was becoming harder and harder. Still, I was on track to graduate and move on as an engineering major at the university. I’d taken enough units to graduate with two associate degrees in math and physics, and a certificate in engineering. My academic career was on the right track! I knew that graduation was a big deal as it approached because I was the first in my family. I was proud of myself and they were proud of me too. The extra classes were worth taking because it made my transfer application stronger and because I was building a solid foundation for what was coming at the university level. I had several options to choose from, but I chose the University of California at Riverside (UCR) because I fell in love with the campus after a tour. The vibe was right and it was still close to home. It took me four years to conquer the community college and was ready to move on.

My transition to the university was very positive because I applied to a Summer Bridge to Research Program at UCR. A simple email alerted me of the program. I highly recommend that all transitioning students do some form of incoming orientation to assist with the transition. The best part about this particular program was that I was exposed to research for the very first time. I was in the lab observing and learning so much. The particular lab I joined was working on transparent cranial implants. Developing these new tools would allow surgeons to do non-invasive treatments in the future. We studied how to prevent bacterial infections on the implant to make sure that it would be safe once used on humans. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would be learning about something so interesting. By the time I was starting my first quarter on my own, I was familiar with other beginning students, the campus, and with what to expect. Nonetheless, going from a sixteen-week semester system to a ten-week quarter system was difficult. Everything was moving fast. I adjusted by letting go of work as a cashier to better focus on school. Also, I planned everything! There was no room to fall behind in a ten-week quarter system especially since classes were much harder than at the community college. I often did my work in the science library or the engineering room where other students could help. One math problem could take up to an hour to get through at that level. Dedication meant that I was getting to campus at about nine in the morning and leaving at around midnight sometimes, only to do it again the very next day. As I think back, I realize that I didn’t mind. In fact, I have good memories of those experiences. I was going to classes, studying, and socializing. It was fun because I was being challenged and was interested in learning. In between, I did my best to go home and spend time with my family. Several classes challenged me at UCR, but there’s one specific class that I remember most.

"I highly recommend that all transitioning students do some form of incoming orientation to assist with the transition. The best part about this particular program was that I was exposed to research for the very first time".

For this class we had to build a bridge out of twelve regular drinking straws. It sounds simple, but it wasn't. Our team also had to calculate how much weight the bridge could take before breaking. The most difficult part was that we had to know exactly which particular straw would break first. The project kept us up for many late nights. Our final grade depended on calculations and predictions. These are the type of projects that engineering students do. I remember building and rebuilding our bridge several times in order to test and retest expected results. This was a stressful class that tested our knowledge base, dedication, and ability to apply math and physics principles. Earning a 97% as a final grade made the effort something that we could be proud of. I must admit that the course was stressful at the time, but now I think back to those experiences as great memories. I was preparing for yet another graduation, but this time it was even more special because I was selected to be commencement speaker at our graduation ceremony. This was my first time speaking in front of such a huge crowd. I felt honored and was a wonderful moment for my family and me. Because I consider myself a shy person, I never would have imagined doing this! This was another celebratory event that reminded me that hard work pays off. And another event that made my family proud. There were very few Latinas in my upper division math and physics courses, such as myself. The lack of diversity was sad, but I felt especially proud and empowered to know that I was taken a path less traveled. I was proving without a doubt that it could be done.

The lack of Latina engineering majors attracted me to the idea of becoming a peer mentor at the transfer center. We travel to community colleges to work one-on-one with aspiring students to let them know how amazing it is to be on a path of an engineer. I often take part in panels, breakfasts, and lunches to answer questions and to share my story in hopes of inspiring other young Latina students who are thinking about this path. I went from a 2.4 GPA in high school to a 3.6 GPA as an engineering student. None of it was easy, but it was all worth it! The fact that I did well in math in middle and high school was important because it's an important foundation for this career path. The fact that I liked math was important because I wanted to keep learning more. I was there too. I was one of those students who often doubted if I would ever use what I was learning in high school. I realize that high school math was about establishing a basic foundation and the university level is about actually applying math and physics principles. All of that had led to my successes along the way and a bright future.

I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering because I enjoy what I study and look forward to more projects in the lab. Also, I figured that it was the best way to show my sisters how to be a proud Latina that can make a difference across all communities. It's a great feeling to know that I’m securing my future, while also learning a discipline that will solve problems in the real world. I’m in my first year here at UCR. I’ve had to adjust once again because it’s gotten even more challenging, but I’m sure that I will adjust. Doing well in school at any level is about finding motivation, direction, and hard work. Every student will need to search far and wide to understand what will drive their unique ambitions. The goal is search alongside family, friends, and mentors who will guide ideas along the way. Seeing my parents work long hours and taking to heart their words of encouragement motivated me through the years. Working as a cashier at a taco shop gave me a clear glimpse of what I didn’t want for my future. I can picture myself teaching, running my own lab, or perhaps doing research in industry. In any case I will have ample opportunities at an amazing career in the engineering field as a proud Latina!