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Engineers Week: Low-Income, Latino, and STEM Bound
My journey was improbable; some might even say impossible. My parents trekked on top of trains, waded across rivers, and traversed Texas forest for seven days to make their way from Mexico to the United States. They settled in a mobile home park in California, where my father worked as a waiter and my mother as a homemaker and nanny, making a combined $35,000 a year. I, their proud son, majored in aerospace engineering and minored in psychology at the University of Southern California. Today I am a high school physics teacher in Los Angeles and get to travel the world, from Mexico to Spain to Puerto Rico, courtesy of fellowships and extolling the power of STEM education.
My low-income, Latino, engineering background shaped my life to wonderful fruition. As we mark Engineers Week (February 22-28), I’ve been thinking about the students who share my background. How can we ensure that science, technology, engineering, and math (collectively referred to as STEM) are resources for them to shape their own destinies?
To further examine this question, let's delve into my past. My family settled in El Monte, California, where the drugs and crews that permeated from nearby Los Angeles were common. My brother was a gifted student, but fell to graffiti, crews, and alcohol use. He barely graduated high school. Martin, my childhood friend, was TJ Deptweiler from Recess, friendly with every kid and teacher at school. At fourteen, his father’s Leukemia returned with an unstoppable force and snatched him from Martin’s life. This left his family devastated. Within a year, Martin started selling drugs to help his mother pay rent and avoid losing their home. My brother and Martin were good kids who remain good people, but their circumstances forced them to make difficult and undesirable choices.
A year after Martin began living a double life, my family could not afford the rising rent on a mobile home in California and so my father moved us. In Texas, my family found its struggles amplified. When I was sixteen, my mother was held in Mexico for three months for her residency application; to me, it felt like she was deported. Unknown to me at the time, this was standard for undocumented immigrants to appeal their legal status from outside the country ranging anywhere from a few months to years. My father and I worked hard to cover rent and send my mother extra money for living expenses.
The summer before college, my father’s diverticulitis, previously undiscovered, started flaring up and pockets of acid burst into his intestine. Emergency surgery and no health insurance left our family over $70,000 in debt. Aside from my closest handful of friends, most people in my life do not know my family filed bankruptcy my sophomore year of college. As I reflect on that fact, now you know one of my family’s most intimate secrets.
Through all this, the odds were not in my favor to graduate from a university. But there were those who made it possible. Mrs. Bridges held multiplication table races and affirmed my love of math. Mr. Murillo sat me outside of his fifth-grade classroom with my own sixth-grade math book to do advanced problems. Mrs. Yoshioka placed me in algebra in seventh grade, which led to advanced mathematics courses the rest of my K-12 career. I remember Mr. Zamarripa whose enthusiasm and energy singing, “Meza que más aplauda,” brought a smile to my face. In high school, Mr. Gehman made me fall in love with physics.
Never mind all that was going on around me: my teachers and these amazing STEM experiences made it possible for me to carve the college and career experience of my choosing. My time at the University of Southern California prepared me for a future in engineering, but it also showed me that as a Latino of low-income background, I was one of very few in my field, a sprinkle of cinnamon in a sea of salt.
I didn’t always see myself as a role model for other kids like me, or realize I had the power to help them fulfill their potential. Until I met a teaching recruiter, Mr. Otero, I thought I would end up in an engineering cubicle. Meeting with Mr. Otero sparked the possibilities of combining my low-income background and experience in STEM to inspire other students in south central Los Angeles.
When I entered my classroom as a Los Angeles ’13 corps member, I wrote a personal letter to my students detailing much of what I’ve told you here. It ended, “Embrace the beauty in the struggle.” My students might not have everything, but they have smarts, strength, and conviction. I preach the power of STEM education to my students because it has taken me places I never imagined from that mobile home. I know it can do the same for them.