My passion for engineering stems from my father's excitement for the subject. During my childhood he taught me to see science as an art and challenged me to innovatively use tools outside of their intended purposes. Unfortunately, my dad did not have the privilege to access higher education. Both my Mexican-immigrant parents served their time working in large warehouses and hotel maintenance. In my hometown of Santa Ana, CA, this blue-collar lifestyle is standard among the majority immigrant community; higher education on the other hand, is not common. While this reality affected my early goals, my parent’s, teacher’s, and mentor’s passionate support and guidance propelled me to overcome numerous hurdles and become the first in my family to earn a Bachelor’s degree. I gained a physics degree from Pomona College, and now, as a PhD Mechanical Engineering candidate at UC Riverside, I look back and reflect on the support I’ve received, lesson’s I’ve learned and skills I’ve gained that have help me strive onward during this continued, strenuous path. As someone who is motivated by challenges, I challenge students of all levels to the following:
1. Find a familia outside of your family. When I entered Pomona College, I was challenged on many fronts including being the first in my family to navigate higher education, experiencing culture shock, and feelings of impostor syndrome. In college, a support system of others tackling similar obstacles will keep you afloat and swim with you to the finish line. This family can come from multiple places, for me it came from the Santa Ana, Nicholas Academic Centers (NAC), a program that provided me with an immense amount of support during high school and the Claremont Consortium Chicano Latino Student Affairs (CLSA). For those pursuing STEM, there are a multitude of organizations that focus on Latinos’ success through the college journey (SACNAS, SHPE, MAES etc.). Find at least one and actively participate.
"I was challenged on many fronts including being the first in my family to navigate higher education, experiencing culture shock, and feelings of impostor syndrome."
2. Find a hobby outside of your studies. Focus on your education but prioritize your mental health by finding an outlet you are passionate about. Throughout high school I ran cross country and track and field. By no means was I fast, but I challenged myself to improve my running times to distract me from the stresses of school. Recently, the rigors of graduate school have dragged me down, but I’ve picked running back up and have set goals to run twice a week and reach a pace faster than 7 minutes a mile. Try as many hobbies as early as possible (from middle or high school if you can) and stick with those you enjoy, especially if they challenge you.
"Try as many hobbies as early as possible (from middle or high school if you can) and stick with those you enjoy, especially if they challenge you."
3. Find mentors and ask for help. There are many cultural barriers and practices us Latinos need to break; being ashamed to ask for help is one of those. If you don’t need to ask for help, you aren’t challenging yourself. I graduated near the top of my class in Godinez High school in Santa Ana, CA but wow was I destroyed early on in Pomona College. In my early semesters I was failing exams to my strongest suits: math and physics. I felt defeated and behind compared to my peers who seemed to grasp concepts faster than me. I later learned that many had already seen the material previously or were seeking tutoring. After a few semesters, I gained the courage to attend tutoring sessions and confidence to approach professors. Apart from my physics professors’ guidance, I connected with the CLSA dean Dr. Jimenez who strongly encouraged me out of my comfort zone and supported my journey applying to summer research positions and later graduate school. In your own journey, you will encounter someone that motivates you. When you find that person, stick to them like gorilla glue and follow their advice. However, don’t limit yourself to finding mentors within your high school or college. I challenge you to make a LinkedIn account and connect with someone who walked the path you are aiming for.
"There are many cultural barriers and practices us Latinos need to break; being ashamed to ask for help is one of those."
4. Apply to many scholarships. There are endless of funding sources available to high school students including the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and for students from Orange County, CA, the Hispanic Education Endowment Fund. To reduce my parent’s financial burden of paying for my education, I accepted the advice of my high school teachers and guidance counselor Mr. Oxx and obtained scholarships to graduate debt free from a school where the annual tuition and board is ~$50k! There are also many fellowships for graduate school (FORD, NSF, GEM) that will support you for multiple years. When applying, don’t forget to ask for feedback! I annoyed multiple professors, friends, and counselors to review my applications and most recently, I was awarded the Ford Fellowship (dozens of rejections elsewhere). I challenge you to apply to at least one scholarship each year and ask 3 pairs of eyes to look over your application.
"To reduce my parent’s financial burden of paying for my education, I accepted the advice of my high school teachers and guidance counselor Mr. Oxx and obtained scholarships to graduate debt free from a school where the annual tuition and board is ~$50k!"
5. Embrace your roots and share your story. Pursuing higher education doesn’t require you to leave your culture behind. Certain fields and universities can be predominately “White environments”, but don’t be afraid to proudly represent your ethnicity everywhere you go. I transitioned from a 99% Latino enrollment, and roughly 90% economically disadvantaged high school to a private university composed of less than 15% Latino students. This drastic change and culture shock endlessly made me feel like an impostor, but hints of my culture helped me keep moving forward. For instance, I felt shocks of joy and goosebumps hearing other students playing Ranchera music unashamedly loud; it gave me a positive boost to my day. If you move away from home for college, call your family and call them often. Along those lines, share your story and pass the support to other generations. No mater where you are in your life, you know more now than you did a year ago. I challenge you to visit a teacher you had 4 years ago, thank them, and share your experience with their current students.
"Pursuing higher education doesn’t require you to leave your culture behind. Certain fields and universities can be predominately “White environments”, but don’t be afraid to proudly represent your ethnicity everywhere you go."
Finally, I want to normalize the impostor syndrome. I am a doctoral candidate and I can’t imagine the number of times I’ve contemplated quitting since my academic journey immediately after high school. I’ve heard of techniques to counter this feeling of not being worthy, a feeling of not belonging and of not having achieved but time and time again that feeling lingers. To those reading this, know that this feeling will come and go. At times you’ll feel saturated, tired, depressed. No matter if you need to rest for a few minutes, hours, days, or weeks, take the rest, reach out to your support system, and keep going. Do not quit. We may not be strong enough alone to keep going but look at those ahead of you and those coming up behind you. We are all familia and together, si podemos.