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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 Familias to promote
dialogue, offer support, and improve persistence for 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 of budding Latino/a
scientists, and to share their stories, as he has done, in an effort to promote change.

As I write this essay, I am just a couple of months away from receiving my col-
lege diploma from Yale University. Under my name, my diploma will read
“Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology.” This detail, I imagine, is
unremarkable to most—after all, college diplomas ought to include a student’s
major. That said, a significant number of my Latino/a peers who entered Yale
as prospective math and science majors will be collecting diplomas that read
“English,” “History,” or “American Studies”—their dreams of pursuing math
and science deferred for now, if not forever. Although there is great value in
a liberal arts education, in which a budding physicist can pursue her love of
literature and an aspiring physician can study art history, my experiences sug-
gest that Latino/a students are abandoning math and science not to explore
the richness of other disciplines but because they lack the support to complete
their studies in these areas. In this essay, I share with you my successes and
failures as a student and as the founder of MAS (Math and Science) Familias,
an organization that supports Yale Latino/a students. I believe that through
sustained dialogue, collaboration, and concerted action, the undergraduate
experience of Latino/a students will be enhanced; I hope that my story will be
but one contribution to this important aim.

Harvard Educational Review  Vol. 79  No. 4  Winter 2009


Copyright © by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

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Harvard Educational Review

As a high school student, I never imagined I would attend college outside


of Colorado, where I was born and raised. In fact, I had trouble even envision-
ing myself as a college student; with interminable disputes raging at home
and financial concerns constantly occupying my thoughts, I focused on the
present, on managing the tasks at hand. Going into my senior year of high
school, I intended to apply to a couple of schools at most, because I could
not afford to pay the steep application fees. This all changed when my high
school granted me application fee waivers. I took full advantage of 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 to
my surprise, Yale offered me admission, and I eagerly accepted. When news of
my acceptance spread through my high school, several of my classmates were
quick to suggest that my ethnicity, not my accomplishments, had secured me a
spot in the Ivy League. These claims upset and worried me, especially because
I could not directly refute them. So in an effort to silence my critics, I worked
even harder those last few months of high school.
Before 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
first semester, I applied for a spot in an honors science program and in a
chemistry class, only to be turned down for both because of inadequate high
school preparation and a suboptimal SAT score. Already concerned that I
would struggle at Yale, I was further convinced by these setbacks that studying
math and science would be incredibly challenging, perhaps even infeasible. I
knew that self-confidence plays a critical role in shaping one’s notion of what
is possible, academically and otherwise, so I began that first semester deter-
mined to succeed but also wary of the obstacles that lay in my path.
Early in my freshman year, I found employment at La Casa, the Latino
Cultural Center, where I worked directly with premedical Latino/a students.
I organized meetings with premed advisers, invited upperclassmen to share
their experiences with freshmen and sophomores, and brought together stu-
dents of all years to advise one another on course selection. In my classes, I also
met other Latinos/as interested in math and science. As the year progressed, I
noticed that many of these students decided to stop studying math and science.
Some cited a lack of support and uncertain career prospects, while others cited
the rigor of their coursework, when explaining their decision to seek out new
disciplines. One friend lamented that, regardless of her efforts, she could not
score well on her chemistry examinations. She said that she felt stupid and out
of place, and that, more than anything, she wanted to escape these feelings.
True to this sentiment, she left her major, biology, and did not return.
I stuck with my math and science classes, although I can say that there were
trying times. To help me manage discouragement and improve my academic
performance, I sought to create a network of friends, tutors, and professors,
who were willing to support me in my endeavors. Although I lacked some of

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the skills and experiences needed to excel at Yale, many people around me
did 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
friends were having their own struggles and because some professors were
not interested in serving as mentors. Overall, I did find that people wished to
help and that my willingness and eagerness to ask for help made people more
inclined to support me. No one in my family is a doctor or a scientist, and I
did not grow up around adults familiar with the challenges of preparing for a
career based in math and science course work. The network I forged provided
guidance where my family could not and was critical to my success both inside
and outside the classroom. It is worth noting that for me and countless other
students, a college education is our chance to improve our lot in life. Educa-
tion is our key to a brighter and better future, making academic troubles par-
ticularly difficult to endure, especially when success can be found in areas out-
side of math and science.
As I struggled to make sense of the departure of my Latino/a classmates
from math and science courses, I began to learn about the ramifications of
the limited representation of Latinos/as in these fields. Practically speak-
ing, the American work force—in medicine, academia, and industry—could
be strengthened by nurturing and training more talented young people. Yet
many students with great potential fall through the cracks, never receiving
the proper attention or support they deserve. In particular, within minority
and low-income communities, there are untapped, bright students who can
contribute to the advancement and standing of our country. By failing to pro-
vide for these students, we threaten the long-term health of our economy and
our institutions, and we do not fulfill our obligations to one another. Numer-
ous studies have demonstrated the importance of diversity in the public sec-
tor. For example, there are measurable outcomes, ranging from patient sat-
isfaction and medical coverage to pre-college student performance, that can
be improved by a diverse work force (Health Resources and Human Services
Administration, 2006; National Collaborative on Diversity in the Teaching
Force, 2004). Moreover, it is unfair to deny a student who has rightfully earned
admission into college a reasonable opportunity to pursue his or her academic
interests. There are already considerable financial barriers to a college edu-
cation—barriers that my siblings and I know all too well—and it is frustrating
to think that, after surmounting these barriers, capable students still may not
have the social capital to fulfill their goals. Educational disparities beget pro-
fessional disparities. In learning about the lost opportunities and career pros-
pects for Latinos/as, I realized that one way to address these concerns would
be to implement programming that improves retention of underrepresented
students in math and science. To this end, at the beginning of my sophomore
year, I founded MAS Familias.
The network of peers and professionals that I developed my freshman year
served as a model for MAS Familias, a student-run organization that aims to

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support Yale Latinos/as in their math and science studies. I knew that my
peers and I were capable of thriving in our classes and making an impact
in our fields of interest. We all had the drive to succeed, but we lacked a
strong community in which we could find moral support, academic and career
advice, and inspiration. Through MAS Familias I sought to create such a com-
munity, with the ultimate aim of preventing, if not reversing, the tendency of
Latino/a students to leave math and science at Yale. It was difficult convincing
others that we students could actively influence the success of our peers. The
first challenge was to gather Latinos/as interested in math and science in one
place. To do this, I enlisted the help of an older friend (who happens to make
delicious tostadas), and we brought students together over shared cuisine to
discuss the aims of MAS Familias. Since we all had very busy schedules, pro-
spective members wanted to be sure that their involvement would be fruitful.
MAS Familias started with just a few members. In our first couple of meetings,
we recognized powerful similarities in our experience as we discussed the chal-
lenges that we each had faced at college. I expressed concern, for example,
about seeking an advanced degree after college, because I knew that my family
would benefit greatly if I were to seek employment instead of attending gradu-
ate school. Another student remarked that there were not enough minority
professors around and that he would like to connect with a Latino/a profes-
sor or professional who could serve as a mentor. From these and other shared
experiences and sentiments, we identified trouble areas for Latino/a students
and set about developing MAS Familias. It became evident that together we
could address and overcome the barriers that many of us faced.
Late in my sophomore year, to transform MAS Familias from a fledgling
organization to an established one, I organized several social events that made
the group more visible and allowed us to become more familiar with one
another. From these events emerged a core group of students committed to
the vision of the organization. Capitalizing on our momentum, I planned and
oversaw the implementation of several initiatives. It was clear that, to be most
effective, MAS Familias needed to provide mentorship, networking opportu-
nities, tutoring, and information on classes and internships. For example, we
instituted weekly dinners to bring together Latino/a students and facilitate
dialogue. We began to operate like one large extended family (or familia), and
at these dinners, over the all-too-familiar dining hall food, 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 efforts,
juniors and seniors serve as role models to freshmen. Many freshmen are
uncertain about the feasibility of their career goals; with MAS Familias they
are able to look to older students and conclude that it is in fact possible to
be a successful Latino/a in math and science at the college level. To provide
support in the first weeks of college, we personally e-mail incoming students
before they start classes. At Yale, the total number of students in MAS Familias

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currently fluctuates between fifteen and twenty, depending on our success in


recruiting freshmen. We also invite professors and local alumni who work in
math and science fields to dine with the organization in order to introduce
students to different career opportunities. Over the years, we have met with
astrophysicists, biomedical engineers, and educators, among others, opening
our eyes to the myriad possibilities available to students in math and science.
We have learned that arranging dinners with professors and local alumni is
a manageable task for any college student, and it pays incredible dividends,
mostly in the form of inspiration and mentorship. After all, how many young
students have met an astrophysicist, let alone a Latino astrophysicist?
In MAS Familias, we view personal narrative as our most valuable resource
and use it to promote group solidarity and to shape and embolden our aspi-
rations. I have found that one of the main deterrents to pursuing a career
in math and science is discouragement, not some fundamental difference in
aptitude. By sharing our concerns and experiences during the weekly din-
ners, we are able to find solace, hold each other accountable, and feel as if we
are not alone in the pursuit of careers in math and science. Outside of these
dinners, we plan social events to strengthen personal connections within the
group, tutor freshmen in chemistry, and organize research symposia where we
practice oral presentation skills. We also prepare materials on math and sci-
ence opportunities at Yale (in the form of a freshman handbook) as well as on
summer internship opportunities.
Despite our success in creating a community of Latino/a students studying
math and science, MAS Familias has not realized its full potential. Our impact
is limited because we have yet to successfully identify and make contact with
all Latino/a students at Yale who could benefit from our activities. To improve
retention in math and science, we need to attract more incoming students,
so that when a Latino/a student has difficulties, MAS Familias knows about it
and can respond. Now, when a student decides to abandon math and science,
we do not know about it unless that student is already connected to the orga-
nization, thus rendering the struggles of some students less visible. Plans for
addressing this include contacting incoming students several months, instead
of weeks, before classes start with the aim of increasing our yield of active
members and connecting more Latinos/as to the MAS Familias network.
In addition, we are working on developing ties with the local New Haven
community. We realize that, despite our own difficulties, we are fortunate to
have access to a college education and believe it is our obligation to support
Latinos/as beyond the Yale campus. The challenges that Latinos/as face here
are not unique, and we can draw on our resources and experiences to have
a broader impact. Although the attrition rate of Latinos/as in math and sci-
ence at the college level is cause for concern, even more students are lost
before college starts. Before coming to college, I did not realize that a pleth-
ora of careers in math and science exists beyond medicine and basic science
research, and so the range of career options never occurred to me. To increase

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the number of Latinos/as in these fields, we must not only retain college stu-
dents but also equip young children with the confidence to dream big. Just as
the election of Barack Obama has demonstrated to millions of African Amer-
icans that they can achieve at the highest level, as college students we can
introduce young Latino/a children to the possibilities of math and science. In
the coming months, MAS Familias aims to contribute to this goal by mentor-
ing New Haven youth, and I hope to write a children’s book that introduces
math and science to young children in the context of various Latino cultures.
Just like a mentorship program, a book can introduce children to professions
that may not be represented in their communities. It has the potential to use
shared cultural experiences as a vehicle to convey that Latinos/as, too, can
be scientists, physicians, and mathematicians. Raising Latino/a children who
want to enter math and science is critical to the overall goal of diminishing
educational and professional disparities.
Founding and developing MAS Familias has shaped my college experience.
That said, most of my experiences at college have occurred outside of the
organization. As I alluded to earlier, I entered college hyperaware of my eth-
nicity. Although I was never the only minority student in class, I felt as if I
needed to prove to my peers that I deserved to be among them. I worried
that if I did not excel in my classes, my critics and skeptics would continue
to claim a causal link between my ethnicity and my place in college. I eventu-
ally realized, though, that the energy I spent on worrying about these claims
could be better spent. I am grateful and humbled by the opportunities that I
have had to build and learn from my support network—opportunities that my
siblings, who are in less supportive and resource-rich academic environments,
may never have. I have thrown myself into my major: molecular, cellular, and
developmental biology. In studying cellular processes and the biological intri-
cacies of life, an entire world, to which I previously did not have access, has
been revealed to me. Even though I have stayed true to my academic interests,
I must admit that when I am introduced to interesting fields in math and sci-
ence, like primatology or conservation biology, I shy away from seriously con-
sidering myself as a professional in them. After working so hard to gain access
to, and finance, a college education, I feel compelled to pursue a more tradi-
tional route, one that I know will lead to a secure job. Thanks to funding from
the Rhodes Scholarship, after graduation I will have the opportunity to deviate
from the traditional route to medical school and study a new subject, medical
anthropology, at the University of Oxford, without worrying about the poten-
tial ramifications. After my time at Oxford, I plan to enter medical school; and
my studies in medical anthropology will better position me to pursue the tra-
ditional path of becoming a physician and achieving my larger career goal of
improving the health of underserved populations. I am excited to see what life
has in store for me after college, wherever I may be, and I look forward to con-
necting with other Latino/a students interested in math and science.

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The past four years have been a whirlwind. Although much has changed
since I began college, my passion for math and science and the support of
MAS Familias have not waned. It is my hope that other students will read this
essay and recognize that by supporting one another we can further diversify
math and science, encourage more Latinos/as to attend graduate school, and
motivate students to work to resolve disparities in education and professional
representation. The MAS Familias model has found success but can certainly
be improved. As students with instant access to others on campuses across
the country, we ought to band together to enhance each other’s efforts. I
hope that this volume of the Harvard Educational Review will spark renewed
discussion and new collaborations to improve the undergraduate experiences
of Latino/a students. Regardless of the obstacles we face in this pursuit, our
voices and our stories will remain powerful and capable of bringing about
change.
I have now shared my story—will you share yours?

References
Health Resources and Services Administration. (October 2006). The rationale for diversity in
the health professions: A review of the evidence. (Contract No. 03-0285P). Washington, DC:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from ftp://ftp.hrsa.gov/
bhpr/workforce/diversity.pdf
National Collaborative on Diversity in the Teaching Force. (October 2004). Assessment of
diversity in America’s teaching force: A call to action. Washington, DC: National Edu-
cation Association. Retrieved from http://www.ate1.org/pubs/uploads/diversity
report.pdf

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