Breaking Generational Cycles; How My Stubbornness Led Me to STEM. - Kryztal Peña

The obstacles I faced throughout my life were unfortunately chosen before I was born; however, they taught me to be resilient. Before I was born, my father had a history of gang involvement. In his day, gang involvement was the norm in his neighborhood because it was something that just happened when you were of age. Because of this, he did not graduate from high school. As far as mom, she was a teenage mom to me and my twin. Having children at a young age seemed to be very common for the Latino community, and our family became a part of that norm. According to statistics I’ve heard through the years, my odds of succeeding and going off to college were quite low. Sadly, a common pathway for children of young parents was to also become teenage parents themselves. Thus, continuing a cycle of poverty and lack of education.

The resilience and stubbornness I developed throughout the years is what got me through high school and into college. I knew that I didn’t want to be a part of those statistics. I ignored anyone who didn’t believe in me and wouldn’t support my big dreams. I learned to be stubborn from my mom. She always told me stories about the disapproval of her relationship with my dad and the backlash she received from announcing she was going to be a 17-year-old mother. She ignored every negative comment; she had my sister and I, finished high school, later received her associates and became a teacher. When I got to high school, I realized my English was not great at all. I struggled in my English, reading, and History classes. I didn’t let that discourage me, I reached out to teachers whenever I struggled or didn’t understand a topic. My poor English skills led me to do very poorly on standardized tests. Although I was hardworking, I wasn’t considered smart and not much was expected of me in terms of one day landing a high paying career. Somehow, I still liked school and was good at math. My stubbornness pushed me to believe that I could do better.

In school I was always asked “What do you want to be when you get older?”. My answer changed at each grade level. In kindergarten I said that I wanted to be a limo driver because I innocently thought that it was the only way I would ever ride a limo. In middle school after my addiction to crime shows, I switched to wanting to become a detective because I liked to solve mysteries. Once I was in high school, I researched what I could do with my skillset and found that I could be a doctor. I giggled at the thought of becoming a doctor because my low scores on standardized tests like the PSAT may have predicted that I would be a carpenter. I had a good laugh because I thought I was not good enough to be a doctor. I often told people that I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, or I’d say “I’ve been thinking about being a doctor, but that’s hard so I’ll probably think of something else”. After telling people about my dream career I was often told “Oh, maybe you can just be a nurse” or “That’s nice, make sure you have a backup plan”. Again, I was beyond stubborn, which meant that their negative comments went in through one ear and out the other. It also meant that I would not give up.

I kept my dream in mind and applied for college because it was another step forward to achieve my goals. I saw college as a way to break generational cycles. However, it was not easy and had to make several adjustments. I bounced from college to college after not being able to afford tuition. I eventually landed at a community college, where I felt like I was a failure because I wasn’t at a “real” college. I loved it though, because I earned a scholarship which allowed me to go there for free! Also, teachers were much more willing to help and more approachable. My need to attend a “real” college led me to apply to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). I quickly learned college was hard and felt that I had few people I could reach out to for help. From this point on my journey was based on trial and error. I had to figure out what worked best for me and if something didn’t work then I had to change it. The point was to identify what was not working and then try something different. Also, I had to learn to ask for help.

While learning to manage a new life in college, my mental health began falling apart. I struggled to study while working 2 jobs to pay tuition. My mother was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer my second year at UIC. Months after the diagnosis my parents divorced after being together for 22 years. As the eldest child I stepped into my mother’s role. Helping my family cope with her diagnosis and divorce was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with. Although I was going through the worst years of my life emotionally, I was doing great academically. I used school to help me cope with everything at home. For the first time at UIC I earned above a 3.5 GPA. What helped me was that I found a hidden passion for research. I started winning scholarships to attend research conferences. I received awards for my abstracts, poster presentations, and oral presentation. I also won a large scholarship from a Latino organization to continue doing research. Also, I had the privilege of holding leadership positions at my institution such as being the president of UIC SACNAS Chapter, a STEM research club.

The reason for all my success in research was not because I was some kind of research genius, it was because I truly loved it and because it was meaningful to me. I did the research on breast cancer among Latinas in hopes of developing prevention methods and catching cancer earlier. I knew the impact it had on my family and I wanted to help prevent the same heartbreak in other families. One main reason for doing well was because of my mentor, Dr. Molina. She supported and guided me through the research process, and taught me all she knew about this whole new world. Because of all her support I realized how important it was for students to have mentors, but not just any mentor. I felt and saw the importance of mentors who looked like us, with similar backgrounds, and who may have faced similar barriers.

The difficult process of navigating a new field I knew nothing about was made possible through all of my mentors. For example, recently I’ve been working for a Latino doctor who was the first doctor I actually connected with in terms of our background and story. Knowing his story and being able to connect to his journey helped me see myself as a future physician. I have learned about the importance of having good Latino/a mentors, but also about the obstacles that exist to find such mentors. For these reasons, I created a YouTube channel to help guide students through the STEM field. I have also started an Instagram page called Project URM where we will be virtually interviewing various Latinos in STEM and asking them to give young minority students advice about navigating the system. Such hands on experience and majoring in public health as an undergrad will definitely help in becoming a future doctora.

I hope you all will learn to be stubborn and continue being resilient in following your dreams. Ignore and move past the statistics that say that you can’t make it. Most importantly, reach out to others when you feel stuck or need help. It is a process to earn a college degree and then get into graduate school; you will need people to give you advice and guide you through the process. If you don’t come from a family with experience in higher education, it is crucial that you network and make your own connections in the field you want to go in. Talk to people and share your passions. Take advantage of platforms like Latino Community Stage to learn about Latinos/as in the field and connect with them because you do not have to pursue your dreams alone!

After all the obstacles I’ve faced, I’d like to think life has gotten much better. I have graduated college and I was able to get a job at a clinic working as a medical assistant. I will be applying to MD/PhD programs next summer and I am excited to share my experience on my YouTube channel. I have continued to share my story and struggles through social media like Twitter and YouTube to create awareness of the struggles that Latinos face in higher education. I want you all to remember que Si Se Puede! The whole village that raised you will be here to support you every step of the way, including myself. Echanle ganas!