Making my mark as a first-generation Latina in a STEM world

Making my mark as a first-generation Latina in a STEM world

By Vanessa Liera

Growing up, I never really knew what I wanted to do as a career. All I knew was that I enjoyed math and science and had a spark of interest in robotics in 6th grade. During my junior year of high school, I had to start applying for colleges, and this meant I needed to decide what major I wanted to apply for. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do in the future, but due to my spark of interest in robotics, I chose to pursue electrical engineering. At the time, I did not really know what engineering was or what electrical engineering consisted of. I only had one idea of what it might be and went with it. 

Fast forward to my senior year of high school, I received an acceptance from UC Davis with a major in Electrical Engineering. This was a big deal because I’d be the first in my family to attend and graduate from a university. Being a first-generation student came with its own challenges but being a first-generation Latina in a male-dominated field came with even more challenges. I had to learn how to live independently, navigate college, balance the rigor of my courses, adapt to a new environment, find confidence in this field, and manage it all. 

I struggled greatly during my first year of college. I remember coming out of my very first engineering class feeling like I got my first taste of imposter syndrome. For starters, I didn’t see a lot of Latinas or minorities in the room and began to feel intimidated. Then as we began to learn the material, the other students in the class seemed to understand the lecture and instructions when I could barely keep up. People knew answers to questions that I couldn’t even comprehend. I felt like I was already behind, and the class wasn’t even over yet. I thought to myself, “How do people know so much already?” “How am I already behind?” “Was I wrong for choosing this major?” 

This was one of the many times I questioned myself and my position throughout my college career. Although it’s common to do, especially as a first-generation student, I shouldn’t have had to feel that way. I was never taught how to navigate and overcome that feeling, but I knew I had to make changes to succeed as a Latina engineer. I worked twice as hard as my peers to catch up and be where I wanted to be academically and professionally. I had to change my study habits, the way I approached my challenges, stop being afraid of asking for help, and stop comparing myself to others. I had to find what worked for me and accept that failure was a part of the process. I also realized that taking care of myself was even more important, so I prioritized taking breaks when I needed to and setting smaller goals that would get me through each day. I took it all one day at a time.

I also made a choice to get out of my comfort zone and get involved in organizations that would benefit me socially and academically. When I got involved with organizations that promoted diversity in STEM, I no longer felt like I was on this journey alone. I found people who felt the same way I did, and I began to build friendships with people in my classes. Being in these organizations motivated me to attend industry information sessions, apply for scholarships, and get to know my professors. Finding my community and confidence inspired me to help others find theirs, especially minorities within electrical and computer engineering. During my 3rd year in my undergraduate career, I co-founded my own organization, the Club of Future Female Electrical Engineers. This organization was made to be a support system for women in Electrical or Computer Engineering but welcomed anyone who supported the mission of creating an inclusive environment for all. I didn’t want anyone else to feel like they couldn’t pursue what they wanted, like they shouldn’t be in their earned position or like they simply didn’t belong. From this point on, I knew I wanted to help future generations of minorities in Engineering and other STEM fields in any way I could, even after college. I want to share my story and show them that anything is possible despite the hardships and challenges. 

Although I made impactful adjustments that changed my college career for the better, I did wish I had known this and more before starting college. I would have liked to better understand engineering as a whole and what each type of engineering consisted of. Knowing this, I probably would have better prepared myself for the rigor and possibly the content of my major. I wouldn’t have felt so behind from the beginning because I would have been introduced to it beforehand and known what I was getting myself into.

With that said, I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve received throughout my college career and after. Choosing to pursue Electrical Engineering was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because even though it brought big challenges, it has brought me to amazing people, new experiences, and a better future. I stopped letting fear get in the way of me chasing my dreams, and my life has turned out better than I could’ve imagined. I went from starting college with no prior knowledge of engineering to landing a job as a quality engineer right after graduation. So don’t let challenges scare you. They’re there to help you grow. I want to use my journey to help the next generation of minorities pursuing careers in STEM and be a resource for anyone who may be on a similar path so that they can build their own.

How did I get into college as a first-generation student with DACA status?

By Luis Peña Espinoza

College is a difficult journey for all who pursue it, but for some, the difficulty is much more than just being overwhelmed with what college to go to or major to pick. In the US, there are close to 700,000 DACA recipients. For this group of individuals, college may often seem like a far-fetched aspiration due to the barriers on the way. These barriers may often be because of financial burdens, legal status issues, language barriers, family pressure, and racial stereotypes [1]. However, 25% of DACA recipients are currently enrolled in higher education as opposed to those challenges. [2]. These are not unique success stories. This is a quarter of the total number of DACA students demonstrating the possibilities of pursuing higher education. Every DACA first-generation student has their own path to college, but I would like to share how I did it and the many possible ways you can go about it if you are in the same position I once was. 

In April 2000, a boy was born in Baja California, Mexico. Three months later, his mom took him and his older brother to the other side of the border to Phoenix, Arizona. He grew up struggling to learn English but slowly got it and stayed in school. His parents decided to stay in Phoenix, have two more children, and find any available working jobs in hopes of building a good life together. That was my family, but the only problem with this was that most of my family was considered to have stayed in the country illegally, including myself. This caused a lot of issues, some I had yet to learn about until later in my life. 

I grew up undocumented in the United States, which did not affect me much in my early life. My first school years were hard to adjust to since I only knew Spanish. It took me until I was seven years old to finally learn English. My next big difficulty in school came from my legal status, but it did not occur until much later in high school. During my freshman year of high school, I realized many things were unavailable to me. Everything that I signed started to require a social security number, which was something I did not have at the moment. I couldn’t drive legally since I couldn’t get a driving permit, nor could I get a job anywhere since I could not gain a workers permit. I could not do numerous things because of my documentation. The most heartbreaking thing was that I was not eligible for many scholarships since I was not a US citizen. It was a setback, but I did my best to get around it when possible.  Fortunately, my sophomore year was when I received DACA, and many things improved greatly for me and my situation. I got a job, began driving, and was able to provide for myself and my family much more than before. I had new hope to continue my education, but it was still difficult because I was not a US citizen, a requirement for many scholarships. It wasn’t until my senior year that I became serious about applying for scholarships. Being a Latino minority, from a low-income family and community, first-generation immigrant, first-generation high school graduate, and having no friends or connection to anyone who has pursued higher education, college seemed incredibly daunting and overwhelming. I knew going to school was the easy part. Being able to afford it was the impossible side of it. Little did I know of the many unique resources and help I had access to in my community. I want you to know that going to school and being able to afford it is a realistic and attainable goal you can achieve regardless of the obstacles you have to go through.

Below, you will find a step-by-step guide I made to help you find scholarships. This is how I went about finding scholarships; hopefully, it can help someone else in need of guidance. I call it: “A Guide to Scholarship Success.”

Know your goals.

The first step to attending college is understanding your career goals and aspirations. Knowing what you’d want to pursue and what degrees and schooling are necessary for it helps you save wasted efforts and lost time. Depending on the field, there are various ways to be employed, from technical and vocational schools to potential internships that grow into full-time jobs without school. I chose Computer Science, a position that often requires the knowledge obtained through a degree, so I decided to go to school. However, a degree is not always needed depending on the job in Computer Science. 

Choose a college you like considering cost and location.

Now that you know what you’d want to pursue in higher education, you can begin finding the best college for yourself. Before we go too deep into the scholarship pendulum, knowing how much money you are aiming for is helpful. A specific college in mind can also help narrow down scholarships by locating their specific resources and utilizing their University Admissions Counselor for help. I would heavily advise talking to someone at the school more knowledgeable on DACA and undocumented student affairs as some scholarships vary depending on the school. The international student’s office may often help with this. 

Financial Aid – Applying for FAFSA (If Possible).

Applying for financial aid is of the utmost importance. Most scholarships and colleges use this to see if you qualify for specific grants or other financial help. This is the most common aid for college but remember that it is not the only one. If you are DACA, you can apply for FAFSA but will not receive any federal aid. I still applied to FAFSA to prove my financial need for a scholarship I later got. Undocumented students may not apply to FAFSA as they do not have a social security number.  

Networking. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The best way to apply and find scholarships is by asking people who have had that experience themselves! Counselors at your school are perfect for this but asking anyone will be a great way to gain different perspectives and approaches. Talk to someone about scholarship help. Some examples are High School counselors, College Admissions counselors, Friends, College Students, or even asking the GCU Learning Lounge (in case you decide to go to GCU). There are many people out there who would love to help you! I learned about my scholarships through friends who were also applying for them. Scholarships are challenging to filter through online as you must read deeply into the requirements before you find out if you’re even eligible to apply, which costs a lot of time better spent applying to another scholarship. 

Know Yourself. What sets you apart helps you the most.

The most important thing about applying for scholarships is trying to stand out from the other applicants. Your personal life story is the way to discover what makes you different. Making a personal statement and refining it is a sure way to have scholarship essay material ready at

hand. Most scholarship essays will ask for a personal essay, so making a personal statement and constantly working on it is an excellent investment. DACA students and undocumented students often have similar stories, so it is crucial to get a second look from a teacher while working on your personal essays. Asking your English teachers can be a great place to start. 

The Search: Focusing on finding the right scholarships.

The first step when searching for a scholarship is ensuring you meet the requirements and can apply. Again, use your resources by asking your friends and counselors for any scholarships they know of. Searching for in-state or college-specific scholarships is a great start. Many private schools offer great scholarships for DACA, first-gen and undocumented students. There are millions of scholarships and thousands of websites that post them. Try out several websites and stick with the ones that give you the best scholarships! I made this list full of different scholarship websites and college preparation programs in 2021. 

Finding your niche. Having specific interests helps.

Knowing what you want to study is great to incorporate into your story when submitting applications. It also helps when it comes to specific majors and studies. Some schools offer more money to particular programs. Try making a list of what makes you unique as a person. You can use this information and reference it when applying for scholarships. Remember, there’s a scholarship for everything!

Recommendations. Ask for letters from your teachers.

More often than not, a scholarship may ask for a reference. Ask for one from counselors, teachers, or even family members who can make a good reference. It’s best to ask early to give them time to write well. Let them know the background of the scholarship it will be associated with or ask for a general recommendation. It is essential for the person recommending you to understand your strengths and aspirations. Please make sure they’re someone who will be comfortable and enthusiastic about writing about you!

Submit BEFORE the deadline.

After gathering all your material to be submitted to the scholarship application, do one more thing. Check your application to ensure everything is in order and satisfies you. Check for typos and formats, and even reread the application to be sure you did what was asked. Also, please submit sooner than later. This isn’t something that the scholarship council will hold against you, but you should always give yourself time to look through it one last time before submitting it.

Apply! Apply! Apply! – The more scholarships, the merrier.

Applying is the only way to be a candidate for scholarships! The more, the merrier! Think of this as a part-time job and try to dedicate hours to searching for more scholarships every week. Apply to as many scholarships as you can. From the big, medium, and small ones. Local, in-state, and international. They are all up for grabs and will assist you greatly. Financial scholarships are what we’re aiming for. There are also various resource programs and internships that can help you in your college aspirations too.

Don’t wait, Elevate. 

While waiting to hear back from the scholarship you applied to there’s more that can be done in the meantime. Instead of waiting for a response on a scholarship, try to be productive. Reach out to the scholarship advisors to stay updated. Make sure your GPA and classes are doing well. Go through the guide to scholarship success and see if you can improve any steps. Apply for more scholarships while waiting.

Following these tips listed above allowed me to receive the Students Inspiring Students Scholarship in 2018 to pay for tuition and the Education Forward Arizona Scholarship to pay for housing and a meal plan which covered every cost I needed to graduate from college. This was the biggest goal in my life, so achieving it was a surreal moment.

I later applied for more scholarships during my freshman year, and I began receiving money back through stipends and was able to save up for items that would help me even more in my college journey. In April 2022, I graduated from Grand Canyon University with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and was the first in my family to graduate college!

Today, I work as a Software Developer in an apartment in Downtown Phoenix with my pet Husky, Luna. I have always been the type to pursue any opportunities that come my way, and I am currently working on a few projects outside my primary means of work. It feels great to be in the position I have dreamed of for many years. My greatest accomplishment was not graduating but being able to be an example to my family, cousins, and friends, who can look up to me when considering pursuing higher education. From where I’m from, not many people think about higher education, and even fewer pursue it. It was never a realistic goal for me to obtain a college degree due to my circumstances and obstacles. No wonder it feels like such a dream now to be in this position. I hope whoever is reading this can someday make their dreams come true as well.

  [1] CHALLENGES AND STRATEGIES FOR ASSISTING LATINO STUDENTS WITH COLLEGE ACCESS AND COMPLETION by Nicole Lincoln, IECA Associate Member (NC)

[2] A Profile of Current DACA Recipients by Education, Industry, and Occupation By 

Jie Zong, Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, Jeanne Batalova, Julia Gelatt and Randy Capps.