The Gifts Our Parents Give Us - Dr. Jessica Morales-Chicas

My educational journey is grounded by the value of “hard work” that my parents taught me and the consejos they shared. My parents were born and raised in Mexico and during their teenage years, they emigrated to the U.S. in search for a better life. Their transition to this country was met with similar challenges that most immigrants face, which involved language barriers, low wage jobs, and few opportunities to gain social-economic mobility. With minimal wages, my parents struggled to afford a caregiver and often took me to work with them. With my Dad, I helped sweep debris and paint houses during his construction projects. Additionally, I helped my Mom scrub toilets, dust, and vacuum strangers’ houses while she was a housekeeper. As a kid, I often loathed going to work with my parents because this meant I had to miss out on being “a kid” and worse off see the cool toys others had in their home that I didn’t. Nonetheless, these days were also something I valued because I got to spend time with my parents and know I made them proud when I helped. What I later learned was that this is one of the most precious gifts my parents inadvertently gave me, because it taught me the value of hard work and ignited a desire to push me so that I could build a better life for myself and my family. This experience serves as the foundation for my educational trajectory.

My interest in school was further fueled by watching my older sister be the first in our entire extended family to go and finish college. Her experiences opened up discourse around the topic of college and really empowered me to do well in the last years of elementary school. Having discovered a new sense of confidence in my school abilities, I decided to apply to a middle school magnet program that focused on the performing arts. This experience helped transform me from a shy girl to one constantly performing on stage. At this point it also already ingrained in my mind that college was no longer a choice but an expectation. I also understood that that if I wanted to go to college, I had to work hard and that meant doing all my homework, excelling on course projects, and paying attention in class. Despite the normal distractions in school, I stayed pretty focused and finished middle school as Salutatorian (i.e., the student who ranks second highest in a graduating class).

Unfortunately, the transition to high school was not easy. Besides not really knowing anyone at my new school, my first couple weeks of high school were also traumatic. In just my first week of school, we had a gang-involved murder of a student and the 911 terrorist attacks the shook the whole country. Anxieties around school difficulty also emerged that made me struggle in some classes and even switch out of one class for fear of failing. Despite, these hiccups, the rest of my high school years become a journey of redemption. Knowing I had a rough patch my first year, I had to work twice as hard the remaining years so that I can keep my goal of getting into college. This often meant skipping parties, staying up late to finish homework, and working on getting more involved on campus. Each year, I focused on getting better grades and also challenged myself to do more extra-curricular activities (e.g., Key Club, Link Crew, and Student Government). By the end of high school, I had a high G.P.A., was elected Class President, Captain of the cheerleading team, and Prom Queen. The sweat, the sacrifice, and the challenge were worth it as I was accepted to several universities and my story of resilience became my strength.

Excited to finally begin college, I decided to spread my wings and move into UCLA to pursue my bachelors’ degree. Although UCLA was only 20 miles away from home, I was adamant about having the full college experience by living in the dorms. As a Latina from a traditional household, leaving the house for college meant leaving behind my family and so I made a concerted effort to call them every day and check in. Although my parents did not understand the college experience, their support and continued confidence in me helped me push through the transition shock.

As a minority on campus, alongside brilliant minds, my college experience came with doubts. For example, I often questioned if I belonged and whether I was prepared enough to be at UCLA. I later learned that these feelings are often experienced by first generation college students and that finding a group of people you can relate to on campus was critical. Unfortunately, I also realized that the level of quality in my K-12 education was not comparable to the elite and private schools many of my peers attended. Therefore, while some more privileged students could afford to slack off or go to countless parties, I had to make strategic choices and work twice as hard to keep up. This meant taking advantage of free tutoring for first generation and underrepresented students on campus and applying to programs that empowered college students like me. Despite these doubts, I thoroughly enjoyed college, earned good grades, and learned to balance my social life in a sorority and finding my career identity.

While attending college I also worked part-time to gain relevant skills. One of these jobs entailed working in the summers as a recreation assistant at a child care center. It was through this experience, my coursework in psychology, and other internships that confirmed my love for working with children. By pure chance, I received an email for a summer fellowship opportunity where I could get paid $3000 in the summer to do research with kids. Although I knew little about research, I decided to apply and was given the opportunity to develop an independent research project on language development. This was my first introduction to the world of a scientist. While I was not using glass beakers or lab coats, I was instead immersed in the social sciences that involved understanding the role memory and prior experience plays on language and cognition. I was able to present this research at multiple conferences and grew an affinity toward research.

My experience as a research intern was complemented by mentorship from a grad student who really forced me to think about my next career step. She encouraged me to further engage in research and also introduced me the power of graduate school. With this in mind, after graduation, I decided to work as a preschool teacher while I began the graduate school application process. During this time, I also heavily reflected on my college course work, such as on the role race, gender, and income play on schooling opportunities. Moving back home further solidified this as I reflected on the eye opening experience of race relations and diversity issues. This introspection led to finding the Human Development and Psychology Program at UCLA where I decided to pursue my Masters and Ph.D in Education.

Pursing a Masters and Ph.D degree took me a whopping 6 years! However, the extensive preparation I received while in college allowed me to earn a fellowship, which covered my tuition and provided a stipend for living expenses. The way I saw it, I was getting paid to go to school, which was great. I also worked various research and teaching related jobs to supplement my income during this time. The key word for me during this experience was “hustle”. In other words, I knew that in order to do well and survive this journey, I had to find ways to excel in my writing, research, and work experiences. This also meant learning how to manage my time and priorities while continuing to live my life for six school years, while in school. I even got married during this time and learned to become an adult. My hard work paid off as I reached the highest degree attainable in education, which is a Ph.D.

While in grad school, I centered my research on understanding the role school context and curricular disparities play on students’ motivation in STEM. I was interested in STEM because I began to realize that while STEM was increasing in importance, Latinos and lower income students of color remain under-represented in these fields. I grew eager to learn about school policies and practices that inadvertently push certain students out of a STEM trajectory. Now, as an Assistant Professor at Cal State LA, I continue this work as a teacher-scholar, which means I am a scientist, a college instructor, and also remain committed to service.

One of my favorite things about my job is that I get to complement my research on adolescent STEM motivation with giving back to the community. For the past three years, my colleagues and I were able to partner with the Verizon Foundation to bring the Verizon Innovative Learning Program for Minority Males to Cal State LA. We also host the STEAM Bridge Program for Girls. Thus far, we have served 250 kids from East LA and through a no-cost program taught coding, 3D print design, virtual reality, augmented reality, and design thinking. The middle school students even earned college credit. We have also focused on bringing related mentors and teachers to the classroom. I look forward to the work ahead.

Thank you to Latino Community Stage for creating this space and for allowing me to share my story. If anyone would like to learn more about the STEM programs or has any questions about my journey to STEM feel free to reach me at jmora163@calstatela.edu.

Thank you to Latino Community Stage for creating this space and for allowing me to share my story. If anyone would like to learn more about the STEM programs or has any questions about my journey to STEM feel free to reach me at jmora163@calstatela.edu.