I Dare to Become an Astrophysicist: You Can Too. - Roberto A. Tejada

I am a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, a first-generation university student, and Princeton University astrophysics graduate student from El Salvador. As a DACA recipient, raised by a single mother working multiple jobs without a green card, STEM education brought me much further than I initially dreamed. The academic and scientific world represented a gulf of socioeconomic challenges; from tuition cost to living on my own when I couldn’t afford it. We Hispanic/Latinx immigrants often push ourselves away from the physical sciences, thinking that science requires special intellectual skills rather than hard work and dedication. Consequently, we often do not consider the physical sciences under the impression that we are not welcomed in these seemingly demanding yet beautiful fields. I envision myself as a future STEM public educator, student mentor, astrophysicist, author, and professor. I dare to become an astrophysicist and professor to join our collective human story of discovery and to bring dedicated mentorship, personalized education, diversity, and inclusion to future astronomers, physicists, engineers, and mathematicians.

My pathway to become a strong academic began with academic disinterest as a high school junior. After living in Los Angeles for two years, my mother moved us to Minnesota, where I spent my teenage years. My stepfather was deported while we were in Minnesota. Soon after, my mother was also deported. My sister and I escaped back to Los Angeles, where our biological father provided a place to live. While in shock and depression, I took refuge in astronomy books and documentaries, and I developed an affection for physics and astronomy. I distracted myself with thoughts of other worlds, dreams of space travel, and fantasies of becoming an important scientist. This was largely a coping mechanism to mitigate the effects of deep depression, cultural shock, social isolation, lack of a reinforcing environment, and the sudden awakening of having to fend for myself.

The scientific and academic world once seemed distant from a DACA recipient like me. Overwhelming obstacles served as distractors that often kept me away from thinking that I could reach my goals. For example, among many other circumstances, having to deal with out-of-state tuition for college was often stressful. I realize that my story is similar to others who may also struggle with doubts. Perhaps other Hispanic/Latinx immigrants are also going through difficult situations that push them away from thinking that they can pursue the physical sciences. Although many overwhelming obstacles will come and go, do not let them stop you from creating and working toward your goals. Find support and make a commitment to your dreams that will allow you to be happy with yourself and life, regardless of difficult circumstance. I have made a decision to be different. I am committed to become a future astrophysicist, author, and professor. I dare to become an astrophysicist and join our collective human story of discovery while bringing hope and mentorship to future students who have traveled similar paths.

I had to find a way to pursue science, while also surrounding myself with others who can become strong supports. I found meaningful work outside of science as a union organizer for the Fight For $15 pay increase movement. While employed at Taco Bell, I volunteered to organize a union with immigrant families barely above the poverty line, young workers with little hope of upward financial mobility, and state representatives and legislators. While speaking to single parents, I privately imagined myself as their child and felt the familiar anguish. Many worked multiple jobs and subsequently left their children alone to fend for themselves – as my mother had done. Most of them only spoke Spanish. They immigrated and worked in these jobs to escape similar fates as we did, and like us, they hoped the American promise would manifest. As a result of our volunteering work and that of the Service Employees International Union, multiple states, including California, passed ordinances to increase the minimum wage gradually to $15 per hour. The right to collectively organize and change the laws for public good is preserved in the Bill of Rights, and I exercised such rights to bring these families a step closer to the promise.

Along the way, I earned scholarships to attend Los Angeles City College (LACC). I mentored and tutored in the LACC STEM Pathways (STEMP) program. STEMP aims to increase the number of low-income students from disadvantaged backgrounds majoring in a STEM field. I also became a Supplemental Instructor (SI). The SI program consists of mentors working closely with students in a particular class subject and overall study skills. After my own internships, I taught a programming workshop at LACC for STEMP students. These experiences accentuated my desire to one day become a professor, and to inspire and train the next generation of scientists.

I have journeyed further than my family and friends in El Salvador ever dreamed I would. The last time they saw me, I was nine years old. Each time my mother cried about coming short on rent and not being able to put enough food on the table, I promised myself to make her sacrifices worth the emotional and physical pain. I am an activist, I am now a researcher at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, and I will be an educator and successful scientist. I plan to pay back all of the patience and close mentoring that I received by helping the next generation of ambitious scientists currently wondering if they will ever be good enough for the physical sciences and for academia, and to those questioning their relevance in our collective journey of discovery.

The biggest misconception about success more broadly is that we achieve our goals solely on our “smarts,” ambition, and hard work. Thus, the mindset I required to pursue and achieve my goals is broad in perspective, and it transcended traditional lore of hard work and perseverance. Although the classical advice is always necessary (e.g., good grades, extracurriculars, etc.), I attribute some part of my academic success in STEM to my passion and admiration of the humanities. I internalized methods of effective communication, developed empathy, an interest in reading and writing styles, and improved my interpersonal relationships. With these tools, I developed relationships early in my academic career; I developed mentorship relationships with my physics professors as well as English and critical thinking professors. I carried and sharped these skills in my third and fourth undergrad years, where I was offered astrophysical research opportunities at UC San Diego and Stanford University and nurtured crucial mentorship relationships with my faculty and post-doctoral research advisors. These mentors wrote strong letters when I applied to graduate programs, and thanks to them, I am now studying the nature and history of planets orbiting distant stars at one of the best research institutions. Therefore, the best advice I can give any aspiring Latino/a scholars as they navigate school and life, is to develop strong communication skills, empathy, and mentorship relationships as early as possible. These attributes, combined with a reinforcing and nurturing environment, made my academic goals a reality.