At six years old, I faced an unfamiliar culture, a new language, and insurmountable unknowns when I reunited with my family in Houston, TX after leaving El Salvador. Although my father only completed the second grade, he made sure that education was my top priority. My parent’s lack of a formal education and knowledge of the English language thwarted their capacity to support my academic experience, yet they were always engaged.
The early years were difficult but I persisted. Fortunately, my high school classmates introduced me to the importance of college preparedness and a college education. Through hard work, determination, and continuous effort, I graduated 3rd out of 747 seniors in my high school, earned my B.S. in Biomedical Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin, and am a Cancer Biology Ph.D. candidate at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. I must admit that without the mentoring of my peers and the emotional support from my parents, I wouldn’t have achieved a higher education.
Currently, I have taken a break from my studies to serve as a policy intern at the White House Initiative on the Educational Excellence for Hispanics (Initiative), to help assess the state of the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education of Hispanic students in the U.S. This topic is close to my heart as I am on the verge of achieving something I never imagined possible.
As a six-year-old ESL student, I couldn’t fathom the idea of one day becoming a cancer scientist. Growing up, I enjoyed STEM courses although I didn’t quite understand their impact on my education. I did however realize that something was amiss; there were very few Hispanic students in my AP math and science courses. In fact, this observation followed a trend in which the higher my education attainment was, the fewer Hispanic students joined me in the classroom. This, along with the lack of a Hispanic STEM mentor to advise and guide me through college, was disheartening to experience.
As a result, it became engrained in my mind that other Hispanic students did not care about education and even less about STEM careers. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Hispanics represent 23 percent of students enrolling in STEM majors – comparable to their White counterparts. For the first time in history Hispanics are graduating in higher numbers than ever (76 percent), have cut the drop-out rate in half over the last decade (14 percent compared to 28 percent in 2000), and enrolling in college at higher rates than their White counterparts (69 percent in the class of 2012 compared to 67 percent, respectively). Despite these positive trends, only 16 percent of Hispanics complete their STEM Bachelor’s degree compared to 30 percent of their White counterparts Thus, this feeds into the lack of Hispanic presence in the STEM workforce.
At the postsecondary level, Hispanic students are not prepared to acclimate to new curriculum structures, diverse communities, and even the weed-out nature of STEM introductory courses. These new challenges, accompanied by academic underperformance, discourage Hispanic students from completing STEM majors. In addition, the financial status of Hispanic students, either the lack of financial aid or the need to support their families, is detrimental to the completion of challenging and time-demanding STEM majors.
And while ensuring more minorities, including Hispanics, are provided access to rigorous courses starting early in elementary school, there needs to be a collective effort on behalf of high schools and postsecondary institutions to support their enrollment, persistence, and success in STEM careers. Currently, 66 percent of Hispanic students enroll in community colleges, providing these institutions with a critical opportunity to retain, graduate, or successfully transfer them to 4-year institutions where they can pursue their bachelor’s degrees in STEM.
The challenges Hispanic students face start long before they enroll in college. While the numbers of Hispanic students enrolling in AP courses and exams in high school are at their highest, no STEM course is within the top 5 AP courses they take. Still, only 30 percent of Hispanic students with the potential to participate in AP classes actually enroll in them. Similarly, in spite of increasing numbers of Hispanic students taking college-entrance exams, only 1 in 7 Hispanics met all four college-readiness benchmarks, indicating a low chance to succeed in first-year college courses. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reports that only 67 percent of Hispanic students have access to a full range of STEM courses (Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry and Physics) in high school. This, along with cognitive and socio-cultural factors, attitudes/perceptions, institutional variables, and college experiences influence the representation and retention of Hispanic students in STEM majors.
As the fastest-growing minority group, Hispanics are projected to represent 70 percent of the nation’s population growth between 2015 and 2060. Thus, it is deeply encouraging to see a new movement taking shape towards supporting and mentoring minorities, and women and girls, into STEM fields. US2020, responding to the White House’s call for action to engage students in STEM, makes STEM mentorship accessible to girls, minorities, and low-income students in order to reinforce a quality STEM education suitable for STEM careers.
Further, the Obama Administration established the Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM) to aid Hispanics in Pre-K-12th grade transition to a postsecondary education and into the STEM workforce through strategies that bring together federal agencies, communities, stakeholders, schools, and students.
Finally, addressing the important financial barriers for Latino families, the Initiative created the¡Gradúate! Financial Aid Guide to Success, which provides key information on resources to finance a STEM education. With the great strides Hispanics are currently making in education, it is imperative for us all to get involved now in order to create a sustainable environment for our students to become the next generation of fruitful contributors to the STEM workforce, the economy, and the collective success of our nation.
Sobeyda Gomez is a Ph.D. Candidate at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. During the Summer of 2014, she was a Policy Intern for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics where she worked on the Initiative’s STEM portfolio