Honoring My Family and Community through Education - Julia Cordero

My academic journey always comes back to my relationship with my family. Both of my parents were discouraged at different points in their lives from working hard in high school or from pursuing higher education afterwards. My mom found a way to go and become a physical therapist despite the discouragement, and always talked about the opportunities going to college gave her: work, help from professors, and the feeling that she could use what she was good at to help others. Although my dad did not go, he has always talked about how much he had been interested in books and wished he could have had more opportunities to study. There is one story he tells that has always stuck with me is from his childhood. He describes how when he was little, he was at the store with his mother (my grandmother) when he saw a set of encyclopedias and realized how much he wanted to learn about what was in them. But whenever he was seen reading, or people thought he was interested in books and learning, adults would often indicate that it would be a waste of time for him, and that he should be working instead. The implication was that he should work in anything other than something intellectual or academic. While there is nothing wrong with non-academic jobs, he was discouraged from pursuing it because of his background and identity.

Throughout my life, my family has emphasized that working hard in school and studying must be the foundation of my life. My dad, although he did not study in academia formally, displayed work ethic in every other arena of his life; he found books about finance and economics after work so he could become financially independent, practiced to become an electrician, and worked to build a house for my family when I was very young. While I was growing up, he talked a lot about how hard work is an integral part of our family, and that while he was discouraged from trying hard in school, he was still raised to work as hard as he could. He wondered what would happen if someone had the opportunity to work that hard in school. That work ethic has helped me stay disciplined when school has gotten difficult. My dad has always wanted me to do well in school and I want that for myself as well. For as long as I can remember, that’s how I’ve lived: I want to work hard because it’s part of my family and my identity. And I do so in school partially because I love learning, but also because it’s how I want to honor my parents. They worked for years so that they could see how far I could go as a student. I want them to know how grateful I am for the chances they gave me by giving everything I have to succeeding as a student and, eventually, in my post-graduate life.

For as long as I can remember, that’s how I’ve lived: I want to work hard because it’s part of my family and my identity. And I do so in school partially because I love learning, but also because it’s how I want to honor my parents.

A key turning point for me was when I got to visit MIT for a weekend in my senior year of high school via the WISE (Weekend Immersion in Science and Engineering) program, which was a fully funded trip intended for Black, indigenous, and Latinx students. That weekend changed everything for me. I had always liked learning and I knew I wanted to go to college, but I also sometimes felt like I didn’t know anybody who had the same background and interests. But my WISE trip showed me there were at least fifty other students in the country who had a background and interests like mine. I still remember it as the weekend that opened my eyes to the world beyond high school and the goal of getting into college. People were conducting research, taking on high-stakes projects in internships, studying even more fields after college (such as business, law, or medicine), building robots, writing books, starting entrepreneurial journeys, and tackling huge math proofs. And they were all people who looked like me and had similar stories! That weekend I stayed in the room of a current MIT student who had a poster that said “strong mujeres” on her dorm room door, and I couldn’t have been more excited. When I came home after that weekend, I was determined to do exactly what my parents had said they wanted for me: work to see how far I could go, only now I knew that “how far” was a lot farther than I once knew.

I still remember it as the weekend that opened my eyes to the world beyond high school and the goal of getting into college.

Since then, the mindset I keep for studying and learning is that my successes, failures, and goals are not all about me. Any failure I have or obstacle I face isn’t about me only; it’s something I tackle and overcome alongside people who support and encourage me. For example, when I first started college I hadn’t figured out how to study yet, but I've learned to pick myself up, understand how to adjust, ask for help, and make sure to figure out how to do better next time. As I improve in school, I think about the example I can set for younger family members and students I know. The work ethic I have learned from my family and culture has helped me enormously. My plan is to establish a solid career path after graduation, become financially stable and independent. This will be my way of thanking my family after so many years of support and encouragement. As I become a stronger writer and thinker, I will contribute to crucial projects that will go on to impact others’ lives in a positive way. I will become an engineer and problem solver. I imagine what I could do for my local community or what technology I can build and add to the world. No matter how small the contribution may be, it will be meaningful and filled with pride. When I feel nervous or intimidated in school or feel discouraged from failure, I think about all the people who could benefit from choosing to pick myself back up in the moment. Whatever I have to learn to get there, or whoever I need to ask for support or advice, thinking about the people I can give to once I reach my goals keeps me motivated to continue.

I have learned a strategy that works with overcoming most obstacles. When I don’t know something I seek out resources that I'm already familiar with. It's simple and it works. I’ve encountered other advice such as “find a mentor” or “build relationships to find opportunities”, and while I think it’s good advice, it didn’t help me a lot when I didn’t know how to find those people in industry or academia. As a high school student, I was still figuring out the process of applying to college successfully, and then how to do well in college once I got there. I used my academic counselor, library books, and websites to figure it out. For example, I did a Google search for “what to know before you start computer science at college” because I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into! The first thing I saw was a three-week program at a Google called the Computer Science Summer Institute. I decided to send my application, which eventually led to meeting more students like me who wanted to study computer science, and people who already worked in industry who could share advice. But I got started on that path when I searched for information and asked counselors and teachers in my life a lot of questions about how to move forward and how to be ready for college and whatever would come afterwards. Other programs such as the Latinas Engineering Leadership Program have also been supportive along the way. I learned important skills that I need to pursue my goals, but I was also inspired to believe in myself and the work that I do.

In the end, everything I have been able to do has been because I feel like I’m part of something bigger. I’m part of a family and a wider community invested in helping younger people succeed, and all that I really want in my academic and professional life is to eventually pay it forward and lend a hand.