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Choosing the Pursuit of Curiosity, Independence, and Astrophysics - Diana Blanco

From an early age, I realized that my home life was less than ideal. After immigrating from Mexico to the United States, my family’s undocumented status meant that there was never enough money. On top of that, as time went on, a divide grew between my parents. My dad’s patriarchal values clashed with my mom’s growing sense of independence. Small disagreements snowballed into tremendous arguments that raged into the night. I dreaded going home from school.

I found comfort in exploring my curiosities. My fondest childhood memories involved reading and learning about many different topics. I vividly remember diving into an encyclopedia set my mom picked up from the “free” section of a garage sale. My first public library card was unforgettable because it was quickly taken away because I didn’t understand I had to return my favorite books. I also remember learning about the Solar System for the very first time in elementary school, which was meaningful because I became entranced by not only the world around me, but also the universe above. And it appears that such fascination has had a permanent impression on me.

My love of learning was met with polarity at home: my dad’s views of what a woman should do did not align with my studiousness; at the same time, my mom encouraged my studies, as she equated education with a higher quality of life. It quickly became clear that higher education would not only be a mental escape from my dysfunctional home, but a literal escape as well. During high school, in the hopes of strengthening my college application, I led my home Key Club, joined the theater club and speech team to improve my communication skills, and I strove to earn good grades, ultimately graduating as my school’s salutatorian in the Spring of 2015. I was accepted into my dream institutions. Nevertheless, my dad refused to allow me to attend university and, naturally, I lost hope.

During those few months after my high school graduation, I refused to accept that my story ended there. I concluded: regardless of the circumstances, my past and present would not define my future. In January of 2016, still undocumented and lacking financial support, I took the first steps toward my own freedom. I purposefully enrolled in a community college as a Physics major, knowing that I was pursuing my curiosities and passion. It seems simple, but for me it was an important moment because I was going completely against what was expected of me. At times, it seemed like an impossibility, but I decided that my independence was more important.

The community college taught me to be resourceful, as I sought alternatives to requirements I could not otherwise afford. Expensive textbooks? Rent them out for a few hours at a time from the school library. No internet at home? Camp at the campus computer labs. Calculator for specific class too pricey? Master speedy calculations or borrow one from a friend. Overpriced homework software? Turn in all assignments within the two-week free trial. I met every barrier with open-mindedness, creativity, and persistence. Throughout my journey as a student, I also learned I wanted to make a difference in the world around me. I struggled and found a way, and I wanted to share such resourcefulness with other students because pursuing higher education should not be made more difficult by overwhelming obstacles. I was determined to encourage other students to find a way to move forward even when experiencing obstacles.

As a community college student, I joined the campus Physics Club first as a member and then as a leader. While there, I promoted inclusivity and participation amongst all STEM majors, regardless of their background or academic standing. As someone from a less privileged upbringing, it was easy to identify and empathize with students coming from similar circumstances. I strived to encourage the typically underrepresented to participate and I promoted the club as a safe space for discussion about physics. All questions were welcomed and the group helped one another improve as academics. It appeared that my efforts began to payoff. When I first joined the club, I was the only female member. However, by the time I graduated from the community college the club members list expanded to include an even number of male students and female students.

During Christmas break in 2017, I was granted my U.S. Permanent Residency. There was still a long way to go, but the road to freedom from my familial circumstances was becoming clearer and clearer. After transferring to California State University, Northridge (CSUN), I was selected to be a Cal-Bridge Scholar. As part of the program, I was paired with two academic mentors, Dr. Luca Ricci from my home institution and Dr. Aaron Barth from University of California, Irvine. Despite doing well during community college, the transition to CSUN was a hard one. My doubts about my ability to do well in a career in STEM compounded when I received a “D” in my first quiz in “Classical Mechanics” - my lowest grade at the time. Initially, I was super hesitant to communicate my anxieties towards my mentors. But it was clear that I wasn’t going to be able to complete my last two years of undergrad without some help. Dr. Ricci and Dr. Barth became my personal lifelines. They served as listening ears, role models, and sources of both personal and professional support. My academic performance and self-confidence as a scientist flourished.

In addition to being my academic mentor, Dr. Ricci also became my research advisor. He introduced me to the science of protoplanetary disks: planet-forming disks around young stars. I studied the initial stages of planet formation and presented my research at several conferences in places like Virginia, Germany, and Japan! I even had the opportunity to spend the summer in Germany to continue my research with one of our collaborators!

Three year ago, I was undocumented and uncertain whether I would be able to meet the expenses that arise from fleeing my dysfunctional home. As a young child, I fantasized about leaving everything behind to pursue my curiosities, a possibility that I quickly associated with perseverance and academic success. I was riddled with both emotional and financial insecurities, still, I continued forward. Instead of hindering my potential, my childhood experiences enabled me to cultivate a commitment towards increasing inclusivity and diversity in STEM as well as inspiring curiosity among the community around me.

I am now an astrophysics PhD student at University of California, Santa Cruz studying very small “dwarf” galaxies and their dark matter properties. Although I am still incredibly uncertain about what I’d like to do in the future (and that’s OK!) I eventually would like to use my education to influence science policy and directly work with the way science can best help the public. Pursuing a PhD is integral to my long-term career goals, and actively attending graduate school adds to my collection of experiences, allowing me to do what’s most important to me: effectively mentoring students, continuing community outreach, and inspiring enthusiasm among the next generation of scientists.


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