A Mi Gente in STEM, There is Room for You

By Alexandra Hernandez

A mi gente,

Science is a place where we do not always feel that we belong. I began to experience that for the very first time during college. I was born and raised in Miami, Florida (a predominantly Latin community) as the daughter of Cuban immigrants with complicated histories . My dad was born in the United States but raised in Cuba, and my mom was born in Colombia, where her family had fled from Cuba’s political system and raised in Puerto Rico. As a result, my identity as a Cuban American woman, with a fusion of Latin culture, was anything other than a minority status in Miami.

Alexandra and her parents on her second birthday in Miami, FL

I began the second leg of my academic journey at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, a predominantly white institution. My experience stepping onto the campus was exciting, but also revealing.

At the time, I struggled finding a community that supported and nurtured my cultural identity. I remember feeling uneasy, calling my mom asking, “How do I greet people?”

I was used to the kiss on the cheek between colleagues in Latin culture and the warmth, closeness, and hospitality brought with it. I missed speaking Spanish at home and battled with assimilating to academia’s dominant culture and holding on to the Cuban part of my identity. In the early months of moving away, I felt isolated.

I was studying science not only because I was fascinated by the natural world, but also in the hopes of creating a better life for the future generations of my family. I often reflected on the foundation my hardworking abuelo had built our family on. My mom reinforced my drive in school by telling me, “Education is the one thing no one can take away from you.” She learned this from her parents’ experience with a political system that would take their freedom, their land, and their home.

Alexandra’s abuelo (right) and abuelastra (left).

But it was disappointing stepping into science and seeing few Latinas represented, especially as I moved up the pipeline from undergraduate to graduate school. It was not until attending my first SACNAS conference during my doctoral program that I met Latina faculty. During this time, I also recognized the lack of importance placed on service to the community and family.

These clashes in values between the academic space and my culture were challenging to navigate and, at times, made me feel like giving up science altogether.

It was through the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship Program that I found my first community of support. As a first-year doctoral student, I was introduced to what would become my familia and support system for my academic journey. The McKnight Doctoral Fellowship Program provided me with professional opportunities, training, funding, and, most importantly, community. It is a space where academics from marginalized backgrounds help each other not just to survive, but to grow with genuine care for each other’s success and well-being. I’m inspired each time I attend a McKnight Doctoral Fellows Meeting and sit in a room filled with doctoral students, candidates, faculty, and alumni from African American and Hispanic backgrounds who share their research and experiences. In that space, students and their research are authentically valued.

While the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship Program feels like my nuclear familia, SACNAS has grown into my extended familia. SACNAS is a space where scientists proudly wear their identities and are celebrated for their science. At the SACNAS National Diversity in STEM Conference, I built connections for my career and support as a scientist from a “non-traditional” background. SACNAS continues to be a space where my concerns, anxieties, and needs are real, understood, and met with validation, encouragement, and love.

Alexandra (right) and Caludia Cabrera Pastrana (left) at the 2017 SACNAS National Conference

Every time I leave the SACNAS National Conference, my familia grows, and I get a little burst of energy to keep fighting for space, not just for myself, but also for others who come from underrepresented backgrounds in science.

I am still learning how to fully wear my identities. But to mi gente, I want you to know there is room for you here in STEM. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you need to give up pieces of your identity to “fit” into science. You may face days where you want to give up, days where your heart will hurt, days where you will feel unseen, days where you will feel trampled on, and days where you will feel you have been pushed to your limits. But building your familia of support in the academy will help you navigate these days. Your familia will see you, hear you, support you, and value you. You are loved and belong in science.

Alex

About the Author

Alexandra’s family from left to right: stepmom, mom, Alexandra, dad, tio, abuelo, abuelastra.

Alexandra M. Hernandez is a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate studying evolutionary biology in comb jellies at the University of Florida. She earned her BS in biology at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and her AA at Miami Dade College. She was the founding president of the University of Florida’s SACNAS chapter and is the first scientist and doctoral candidate in her family. She also cares deeply about her community and making STEM inclusive.

Twitter: @xelamarie92

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Dedicated to advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in science. Science, culture, and community in the movement for true diversity in STEM.