In choosing to pursue a graduate degree in aerospace engineering, I was not motivated by the statistics or the fact that not many with my cultural background had traversed a similar path. I did not consider becoming an example to my fellow Mexican Americans in my class and for generations to come. I did not even fathom that I could be capable of fitting into such a role. Pursuing a graduate degree in aerospace engineering was a personal goal.
During the first semester of my graduate studies, a friend suggested that I take a Mexican flag to the moon after I told him I wanted to be an astronaut. It was then that it hit me: Not only did I want to work with an extremely elite group of highly qualified people in which only a small percentage are women, but I was a Mexican-American woman wanting admission into this group. During my undergraduate career, I had begun to take an interest in aerospace engineering and lived with the unhindered personal dream of one day having a laboratory on the International Space Station. But the seemingly trivial flag comment changed all that.
My family and I are very close. Growing up, I had constant interaction with my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. My parents were always involved in my life, attending everything from tap-dance recitals to after-school softball practices to soccer tournaments in different states. My aunts and uncles were like second parents and my cousins like siblings. We always turned to one another for support and approval. As far as academics went, I was always considered the example that the younger kids should follow.
In my first semester of graduate school, I struggled with the transition into a new environment. Having a nonengineering background, I was deficient in the fundamentals. Now, I was financially responsible for myself. And most importantly, I was terribly homesick, missing my friends, family, and pets. For the first time in my life, I felt academically incompetent and began to reconsider the whole graduate school career I had once pursued so passionately.
At times, I felt like giving up my dream of becoming an astronaut, or at least modifying this dream to something more attainable. But I am now beginning to realize the impact that my continued graduate studies will have on those I care about. Giving up without a fight, so to speak, would send the wrong message to myself and to others. Sure, there are many things in life that we might attempt that may be nearly impossible to accomplish, but pursuing a graduate degree shouldn't be one of these.
There are not many women in graduate science and engineering curriculums, and even fewer Mexican-American women. The reasons for this are numerous. I know from personal experience that these reasons include the fact that in the Mexican culture, the female takes on the roles of caring for the children and tending to the home. Hence, the dream of supplementing an undergraduate degree with further studies often remains just a dream. And the truth of the matter is that this statement can also be made for those dreaming of furthering their education beyond high school.
In addition, for the young women who do get past the mental barrier that a woman should not be striving for career goals outside the household realm, there is the issue of being a minority in the field. There is a mission in both industry and academia to achieve sexual and racial equality. However, gender equality may not necessarily be the appropriate objective. Men and women are different and have different needs. The same holds true for people of different cultures. Here's an analogy: Would it be fair to install the same number of bathroom facilities for men and women in public areas, when all of us can avow that most of the time the women's bathroom has the longer line? Clearly, in this case equality is not a clear split down the middle.
The same holds for attracting minority women into academia. I have different needs from those of my fellow graduate students, due to my cultural background. And since few students share my background, it is difficult for me to find friends who can relate to my experiences and empathize with my needs. For example, in the Mexican culture, it is expected that a child will live at home until he or she marries or attends college far away from home. Since I attended a local university, I decided to live with my parents throughout my undergraduate career. Thus, being homesick was a big issue during my first semester of graduate school. My experience was very different from my non-Mexican peers who had moved out of their families' homes when they turned 18 or began college. While it is human nature to be apprehensive the first time one moves out, I imagine my fellow students' transition was made easier by growing up with a culture that believes coming of age means leaving the nest.
Unfortunately, I cannot propose a general solution to this issue. But I can attempt to make a difference with my own actions. I have modified the goal I once chased so eagerly. I still dream of becoming an astronaut. But just as importantly, I would like to be able to achieve a doctorate in aerospace engineering without forfeiting the other parts of my life that make me who I am--mainly the close bond with my friends and family and a long-distance relationship. I hope that in doing so, I may set an example to Mexican-American women that it can be done.