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Jarrad Aguirre - Increasing Latino a Representation in Math and Science, An Insiders Look

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Increasing Latino/a Representation in Math and Science: An Insider’s Look JARR AD AGUIRRE University of Oxford Recent Yale alumnus Jarrad Aguirre relates his experience creating MAS Familias, a campus organization that supports Latino/a undergraduates studying math and science. Alarmed by Latino/a students’ academic struggles and the lack of Latino/a role models in the fields of math and science—and increasingly aware of the social benefits of a diverse scientific work force—Aguirre built MAS
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  697 Harvard Educational Review  Vol. 79 No. 4 Winter 2009Copyright © by the President and Fellows o Harvard College Increasing Latino/a Representation in Math and Science: An Insider’s Look  JARRAD AGUIRRE University o Oxord Recent Yale alumnus Jarrad Aguirre relates his experience creating MAS Familias,a campus organization that supports Latino/a undergraduates studying math and science. Alarmed by Latino/a students’ academic struggles and the lack o Latino/a role models in the felds o math and science—and increasingly aware o the social benefts o a diverse scientifc work orce—Aguirre built MAS Familias to promote dialogue, oer support, and improve persistence or Latino/a undergraduates in math and science departments. Aguirre calls on undergraduates to work together across institutions, to work with youth to build strong networks o budding Latino/a scientists, and to share their stories, as he has done, in an eort to promote change. As I write this essay, I am just a couple o months away rom receiving my col-lege diploma rom Yale University. Under my name, my diploma will read“Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology.” This detail, I imagine, isunremarkable to most—ater all, college diplomas ought to include a student’smajor. That said, a signicant number o my Latino/a peers who entered Yaleas prospective math and science majors will be collecting diplomas that read“English,” “History,” or “American Studies”—their dreams o pursuing mathand science deerred or now, i not orever. Although there is great value ina liberal arts education, in which a budding physicist can pursue her love o literature and an aspiring physician can study art history, my experiences sug-gest that Latino/a students are abandoning math and science not to explorethe richness o other disciplines but because they lack the support to completetheir studies in these areas. In this essay, I share with you my successes andailures as a student and as the ounder o MAS (Math and Science) Familias,an organization that supports Yale Latino/a students. I believe that throughsustained dialogue, collaboration, and concerted action, the undergraduateexperience o Latino/a students will be enhanced; I hope that my story will bebut one contribution to this important aim.  698 Harvard Educational Review  As a high school student, I never imagined I would attend college outsideo Colorado, where I was born and raised. In act, I had trouble even envision-ing mysel as a college student; with interminable disputes raging at homeand nancial concerns constantly occupying my thoughts, I ocused on thepresent, on managing the tasks at hand. Going into my senior year o highschool, I intended to apply to a couple o schools at most, because I couldnot aord to pay the steep application ees. This all changed when my highschool granted me application ee waivers. I took ull advantage o this unex-pected resource, applying to many schools that I had not previously consid-ered because I did not believe I would be a competitive applicant. Much tomy surprise, Yale oered me admission, and I eagerly accepted. When news o my acceptance spread through my high school, several o my classmates werequick to suggest that my ethnicity, not my accomplishments, had secured me aspot in the Ivy League. These claims upset and worried me, especially becauseI could not directly reute them. So in an eort to silence my critics, I workedeven harder those last ew months o high school.Beore college even started, I knew that I wanted to study biology. Fasci-nated by the human body and outraged by health disparities, I decided that I ultimately wanted to attend medical school. In the weeks leading up to therst semester, I applied or a spot in an honors science program and in achemistry class, only to be turned down or both because o inadequate highschool preparation and a suboptimal SAT score. Already concerned that Iwould struggle at Yale, I was urther convinced by these setbacks that studyingmath and science would be incredibly challenging, perhaps even ineasible. Iknew that sel-condence plays a critical role in shaping one’s notion o what is possible, academically and otherwise, so I began that rst semester deter-mined to succeed but also wary o the obstacles that lay in my path.Early in my reshman year, I ound employment at La Casa, the LatinoCultural Center, where I worked directly with premedical Latino/a students.I organized meetings with premed advisers, invited upperclassmen to sharetheir experiences with reshmen and sophomores, and brought together stu-dents o all years to advise one another on course selection. In my classes, I alsomet other Latinos/as interested in math and science. As the year progressed, Inoticed that many o these students decided to stop studying math and science.Some cited a lack o support and uncertain career prospects, while others citedthe rigor o their coursework, when explaining their decision to seek out newdisciplines. One riend lamented that, regardless o her eorts, she could not score well on her chemistry examinations. She said that she elt stupid and out o place, and that, more than anything, she wanted to escape these eelings.True to this sentiment, she let her major, biology, and did not return.I stuck with my math and science classes, although I can say that there weretrying times. To help me manage discouragement and improve my academicperormance, I sought to create a network o riends, tutors, and proessors,who were willing to support me in my endeavors. Although I lacked some o   699 Increasing Latino/a Representation in Math and Science  jarrad aguirre the skills and experiences needed to excel at Yale, many people around medid not. I laid bare my weaknesses and vulnerabilities with the hope that oth-ers would help me improve. It took awhile to create this network because someriends were having their own struggles and because some proessors werenot interested in serving as mentors. Overall, I did nd that people wished tohelp and that my willingness and eagerness to ask or help made people moreinclined to support me. No one in my amily is a doctor or a scientist, and Idid not grow up around adults amiliar with the challenges o preparing or acareer based in math and science course work. The network I orged providedguidance where my amily could not and was critical to my success both insideand outside the classroom. It is worth noting that or me and countless otherstudents, a college education is our chance to improve our lot in lie.   Educa-tion is our key to a brighter and better uture, making academic troubles par-ticularly dicult to endure, especially when success can be ound in areas out-side o math and science.   As I struggled to make sense o the departure o my Latino/a classmatesrom math and science courses, I began to learn about the ramications o the limited representation o Latinos/as in these elds. Practically speak-ing, the American work orce—in medicine, academia, and industry—couldbe strengthened by nurturing and training more talented young people. Yet many students with great potential all through the cracks, never receivingthe proper attention or support they deserve. In particular, within minority and low-income communities, there are untapped, bright students who cancontribute to the advancement and standing o our country. By ailing to pro-vide or these students, we threaten the long-term health o our economy andour institutions, and we do not ulll our obligations to one another. Numer-ous studies have demonstrated the importance o diversity in the public sec-tor. For example, there are measurable outcomes, ranging rom patient sat-isaction and medical coverage to pre-college student perormance, that canbe improved by a diverse work orce (Health Resources and Human ServicesAdministration, 2006; National Collaborative on Diversity in the TeachingForce, 2004). Moreover, it is unair to deny a student who has rightully earnedadmission into college a reasonable opportunity to pursue his or her academicinterests. There are already considerable nancial barriers to a college edu-cation—barriers that my siblings and I know all too well—and it is rustratingto think that, ater surmounting these barriers, capable students still may not have the social capital to ulll their goals. Educational disparities beget pro-essional disparities. In learning about the lost opportunities and career pros-pects or Latinos/as, I realized that one way to address these concerns wouldbe to implement programming that improves retention o underrepresentedstudents in math and science. To this end, at the beginning o my sophomoreyear, I ounded MAS Familias.The network o peers and proessionals that I developed my reshman yearserved as a model or MAS Familias, a student-run organization that aims to  700 Harvard Educational Review  support Yale Latinos/as in their math and science studies. I knew that my peers and I were capable o thriving in our classes and making an impact in our elds o interest. We all had the drive to succeed, but we lacked astrong community in which we could nd moral support, academic and careeradvice, and inspiration. Through MAS Familias I sought to create such a com-munity, with the ultimate aim o preventing, i not reversing, the tendency o Latino/a students to leave math and science at Yale. It was dicult convincingothers that we students could actively infuence the success o our peers. Therst challenge was to gather Latinos/as interested in math and science in oneplace. To do this, I enlisted the help o an older riend (who happens to makedelicious tostadas), and we brought students together over shared cuisine todiscuss the aims o MAS Familias. Since we all had very busy schedules, pro-spective members wanted to be sure that their involvement would be ruitul.MAS Familias started with just a ew members. In our rst couple o meetings,we recognized powerul similarities in our experience as we discussed the chal-lenges that we each had aced at college. I expressed concern, or example,about seeking an advanced degree ater college, because I knew that my amily would benet greatly i I were to seek employment instead o attending gradu-ate school. Another student remarked that there were not enough minority proessors around and that he would like to connect with a Latino/a proes-sor or proessional who could serve as a mentor. From these and other sharedexperiences and sentiments, we identied trouble areas or Latino/a studentsand set about developing MAS Familias. It became evident that together wecould address and overcome the barriers that many o us aced.Late in my sophomore year, to transorm MAS Familias rom a fedglingorganization to an established one, I organized several social events that madethe group more visible and allowed us to become more amiliar with oneanother. From these events emerged a core group o students committed tothe vision o the organization. Capitalizing on our momentum, I planned andoversaw the implementation o several initiatives. It was clear that, to be most eective, MAS Familias needed to provide mentorship, networking opportu-nities, tutoring, and inormation on classes and internships. For example, weinstituted weekly dinners to bring together Latino/a students and acilitatedialogue. We began to operate like one large extended amily (or amilia  ), andat these dinners, over the all-too-amiliar dining hall ood, we shared our con-cerns, accomplishments, and questions.Since these initial dinners, MAS Familias has grown and matured as an orga-nization, and now supports students in many ways. In our outreach eorts,juniors and seniors serve as role models to reshmen. Many reshmen areuncertain about the easibility o their career goals; with MAS Familias they are able to look to older students and conclude that it is in act possible tobe a successul Latino/a in math and science at the college level. To providesupport in the rst weeks o college, we personally e-mail incoming studentsbeore they start classes. At Yale, the total number o students in MAS Familias

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