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My Journey as a Latina in STEM: Samantha Rivas

As a young girl, I always got asked the million dollar question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It was always a totally unrealistic answer like a rockstar, an actress, and even a Jamba Juice girl. I mean who doesn’t love a good smoothie? I’m very ambitious and though I no longer aspire to be the next Hannah Montana, I’ve always known I wanted to make an impact on the world. I just wasn’t sure in what way.

A field that has always captivated me for as long as I can remember is the medical field. One of my mom’s best friends is a family physician at UCLA Health and whenever we’d see her, I always loved asking her questions about her life as a physician. I was always in awe that someone could be so knowledgeable and be giving back to others all in the same job. This made me excited about a field I could potentially get into when I was older because I love learning and helping people. I knew the road to get there was far from easy, but there was a point in my life where it seemed completely impossible.

I remember sitting in my math class in eighth grade and there was a day where we had a substitute teacher. She taught us the lesson for that week and after a while she just went off on a tangent. For the most part I wasn’t paying attention because she was speaking on something completely unrelated to our lesson, but there was one thing she said that caught me off guard: “It’s true. You brown kids probably won’t go to college or have a professional career.” I remember being in shock, immediately filled with a whirlwind of emotions because I was one of those “brown kids” sitting in that room. My dad came to the U.S. from El Salvador and my grandparents on my mom's side were from Mexico. My heritage had always been something that I was proud of for a multitude of reasons. In that moment, however, I had never felt so small or humiliated. I remember feeling angry and mostly scared that the color of my skin would determine if I’d be able to reach my goals or not. I knew that the curriculum I needed to master to become a physician was mountainous in itself, but then it felt like my background would be yet another obstacle that would prevent me from reaching the finish line. If there’s one thing that my culture has taught me, it’s that hard work will always pay off; I need to put this behind me and work harder than ever before.

Those words of the substitute acted as the fuel to my fire, which I took full advantage of during my high school years. I knew that I needed to stand out when it came to applying for college, so I did everything I could to do so. I was on my high school's pom team, I volunteered just about everywhere, joined clubs, and took the hardest classes I could. I vividly remember receiving my first college acceptance letter and being overwhelmed with indescribable joy. I did it. All of my all-nighters and tears when I felt like giving up all paid off. I wish I could tell that sub that I proved her wrong, but that acceptance letter alone was all the validation I needed.

Being accepted into and choosing one of the top colleges in the country meant that I was taking the first big step in reaching my goal of becoming a physician. Don’t get me wrong I was thrilled, but I was also extremely terrified. I was once again a little fish in a big pond and I felt like I was going in completely blind. As I mentioned before, I’m a first-generation college student, so there was only so much guidance my parents could give me. San Diego State is a huge school with thousands of people. The small classrooms of 30 people that I was so comfortable in grew to be lecture halls with 300 people. To say that I was intimidated is a gross understatement.

The thing that has made my college experience much less daunting is how there are unending resources that students like me can take advantage of. My second semester of my freshman year, I learned that there’s an advising office specifically for students who wish to pursue careers in healthcare. This was so incredible to me and I took advantage of that resource right away. Another organization that I discovered that semester was Women in Science Society. I remember hearing a short presentation in my chemistry lecture about what this organization is and the opportunities they provide. I remember attending my first meeting and instantly falling in love with it. A room full of such energetic women who were just as passionate about science as I was? Pinch me!

Being involved in Women in Science has already opened so many doors for me, even during this pandemic. I’ve been able to connect with others who have been incredibly helpful and supportive in my endeavors as an aspiring physician. My favorite part is that I get to surround myself with such a diverse group of helpful, kind, empowering women. There are so many stories to be told and so many voices to be amplified, especially in the field of STEM, and I hope that I can be a voice for those who have experienced similar adversities as me. The healthcare field needs women, especially women of color. If you're reading this right now, let this serve as a reminder that no matter where you come from or what you look like, you can do anything and everything you set your mind to.


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