By Sara Inés Calderón
Jean Rockford Aguilar-Valdez is a doctoral student studying equity in science education and a former science teacher. She’s been doing research at a high school in North Carolina with a 15% Latino population, discovering that often what prevents Latinos from entering STEM are issues that have little to do with how hard science can be.
A big chunk of the students came out to Aguilar-Valdez as undocumented, and even though they are interested in science, they are unsure about their path to education. Nonetheless, she says they are driven to study.
“Every single one of them said to me, individually, that the reason why they are doing so good in school is because they know that they have to — because they know there is no other way they can get to college,” she said. “They want to do well in fields that are needed and they heard science is a field that needs more people.”
We asked Aguilar-Valdez a series of questions about her interest in STEM and Latinos. Check out her answers below.
MW: What inspired you to go into science?
JRV: I had terrible science teachers all through high school. For chemistry we spent the entire year watching the OJ Simpson trial on TV. When I went to college I was very much into feminism and more political things, more progressive, activist-type things, but I also got really interested in a lot of things that were sci-fi and nanotechnology and molecular engineering. I thought it was cool.
I went to a physics professor asking about starting a nano technology club and he said, “Why don’t you major in physics?” I was the only girl — and certainly the only Latina. For me, it became a political act: physics is the hardest thing I could possibly think of to do and there are barely any girls in it, and I’m going to prove to them that I can do it.
I didn’t fall in love with physics until I took quantum mechanics. It completely changes the way we view reality, it became spiritual for me.
MW: What inspired you to teach and promote STEM for Latinos?
JRV: I was planning to be a physics professor, part of being in grad school is you have to teach — and I loved it. Being surrounded by nothing but white males all the time, talking about how they wanted to make more money, and it was very draining to sit in a lab all day looking through a microscope.
I went into teaching and it was so rewarding to see that immediate feedback from students — and to see those “ah ha!” moments when they got it. I taught in East LA and, as a Cuban, I consider [that experience] to have radicalized me. I became a political animal for the specific struggles that Latinos are going through in the rest of the nation that Cubans may not want to think about.
MW: Why focus on Latinos in STEM?
JRV: In East LA, all my students were Latinos. I would tell them about majoring in science, about the lucrative careers and a lot of them would look at me like I was crazy. “Going to college? Getting a job? We are all undocumented, what’s wrong with you?” they would say.
The more I talked to them about it, the more I was just frustrated by, number one, their lack of hope, and number two, their real issues keeping them from pursuing their goals. Why are we teaching if we can’t encourage them to do what they want with their lives?
The number one reason Latinos need to be in science is because they are the most underrepresented group, given their share of numbers. We make up 3% of the workforce. Latinos are the most underrepresented in science.
That’s just insane, that needs to change. We need young, fresh students who come from low income backgrounds who have a vested interest that the world will still be around for them and their kids.
MW: How do you feel STEM has changed your life, or can change the lives of others?
JRV: I’m at the nexus of the world of science, but I also have experience both being Latino and working with the Latino community. There is a need in science not just for numbers, but we need specific Latino perspectives — when you think about science, you think about a white guy in a lab coat, you don’t think about a young Latino or Latina.
There’s so much work to do with Latinos that, not only can they do science, but they need to be there.
MW: How do Latinas fit into this picture?
JRV: A lot more are going to college, but a lot of them don’t major in science or they drop out. There’s a lot of racial and sexist oppression and they end up leaving not because it was hard, but because they just never felt welcome.
It’s important for both sides to understand. Scientists need to make a welcome space for Latinas, but also Latinas need to realize that it is not just for the sake of liking science or not, sometimes you need to learn to break those barriers. We need to get there, that way we can change the system.
It has to happen on both sides. We need to change it now in little ways so we can change it in bigger ways later.
Sara Inés Calderón is a journalist and writer who lives between Texas and California. Follow her on Twitter @SaraChicaD.