From an early age, I knew I wanted to become an astrophysicist. But little did I know how hard I would have to work or how deep my passion would have to be to become a minority scientist. I didn't come from the best high school or have a high SAT score, but my passion for physics helped me overcome the obstacles related to my background and cultural expectations.
How have I kept my focus all these years? Family, mentors, and like-minded peers have helped me along and form part of the core that drives me. Why do I study science? I love it.
Big Shoes To Fill
For me, the idea of becoming a scientist had its roots at a very young age. I used to love watching Cosmos, the space series hosted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan. The subject matter thoroughly captivated me, and I was hooked. As I grew older, I tried to read as much about science as I could. I remember reading a picture book by Isaac Asimov that explained our solar system. Gradually I progressed to reading Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Edwin Hubble and others.
I was also lucky to grow up on the southern edge of Modesto, California, a place away from city lights with a relatively good view of the night sky. It was this night sky that initiated my speculation and curiosity about the vastness that existed above me.
In elementary school, learning about science was exciting. My imagination flourished as I explored the natural world. At my school, it didn't matter what color you were, what last name you had, how well you could speak English, or how much money your parents made--children were allowed to explore. As we grew older, however, environment and circumstances started to weed out those with great academic potential. Perhaps due to a lack of focus, willpower, or opportunity, they were unable to stick it out. Without proper guidance they got lost in the system and convinced themselves that science wasn't for them. My high school placed more emphasis on controlling student behavior rather than inspiring them to seek higher education.
Nevertheless, I found the inner strength to continue the battle; I believe others can, too. I had a long-term goal--becoming an astrophysicist--so I knew more education was in my future. I stayed focused.
Apathy or Achievement
Entering high school, I looked forward to taking classes that would stretch my mind and challenge me academically. At first I felt some peer pressure not to excel academically. Apathy and destructive behavior seemed to be the norm, and as a young, impressionable teenager, I wanted to fit in. But I started taking honors classes with a small but very motivated group of students. These kids offered a different way of doing things; for them studying hard and getting good grades was the norm. I soon settled into a pattern that would prepare me for college.
When it came time to apply to college I had more soul-searching to do. At first I didn't even think of applying to an institution as prestigious and well known as the University of California (UC), Berkeley. Although I took honors courses, my high school didn't have a high ranking or the funds for top-level science labs. I learned more science from reading on my own than from my high school classes. I hadn't taken calculus and my SAT scores were only adequate. How would I fit in?
I also had personal concerns. Staying with family and attending a school close to home were important factors in my decision. I also wondered about money for school. Should I stay true to obligations and help my family out financially? Should I just work for awhile and then think about school?
Eventually, I made peace with the idea that I'd spend a good portion of my life repaying student loans. I started looking for California schools that offered majors in astronomy. One of the best programs in the country was at UC Berkeley, so I applied and was accepted. I was determined to make the most of this opportunity of a lifetime.
When I arrived at Berkeley I was excited, but I was still insecure. I was a small town boy competing with valedictorians from wealthy high schools and prominent families. I was alone and felt out of my league. My grades suffered, and it didn't help matters when an advisor told me during my freshman year that "science isn't for everybody" and that it might be better if I tried majoring in Spanish or Ethnic Studies if I wanted to be successful. My isolation deepened, and I almost decided to drop out of college at the end of my first year.
But again I found peers who I could identify with. They were mostly engineering students, and I came to know them through the Multicultural Engineering Program. We wound up taking the same classes, struggling together. Another source of support was a series of national conferences I attended, sponsored by the Society for Advancement of Chicano and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Sigma Xi, and the University of California's Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees ( UC LEADS) program. These conferences allowed me to meet and speak with countless others who knew exactly what I was going through. I wasn't alone. I could be successful.
Although I spent most of my undergraduate days wondering if I'd finish my degree, I eventually did. I graduated from UC Berkeley in August 2004 with a double major in physics and astrophysics. I'm currently taking time off to work and soon hope to give back to the community by teaching science and math at disadvantaged high schools. I haven't given up my dream of becoming an astrophysicist. I will eventually go to graduate school, but first, I'd like to help students of color by being a role model and dispelling the myths about majoring in science.
Looking back at my academic career thus far, I'm thankful for the experiences I've had. I've learned that people are more than their GPAs and test scores. They can overcome challenges and accomplish great things if they love what they do. The Latin American revolutionary, Ernesto "El Che" Guevara says it best: "Déjeme decirle, a riesgo de parecer rid ículo, que el revolucionario verdadero está guidado por grandes sentimientos de amor." or "Let me tell you, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love."
Kevin Quiñones may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.