By – Osvaldo Amilcar Rodriguez
Well… actually it’s the first blog entry. You know… I probably should have let my Media and Design team member review this post, but I figure if I can help construct recombinant DNA, I can write a good blog post. *I can hear my English 111 teacher screaming at me from across the county.*
Well, whatever can be said about my writing skills, I’m certain that 2020 is filled with far worse things. In fact, NC State students, as well as many other students around the nation, were faced with unprecedented obstacles as they pushed through the Fall 2020 semester, not to mention the entire year. It’s hard for me to even remember what a normal semester looked like as we had shut down back in February, turning the remainder of my first year on campus at NC State into an all online experience. Ironically, I had been a non-traditional student for most of my life, bouncing between Wake Technical Community College campuses or taking online classes to fit with my 50+ hour work schedule at Dish Network. I started my academic journey many years ago, about 10 years ago to be exact.
I am a first-generation, low income student and things were very difficult growing up. There were a lot of mistakes that I made largely in part because my priorities were placed in making sure there was enough money to make it to the next day. There was also a lack of understanding of how college actually worked and what kind of sacrifices a student of my position would have to make. My family and I didn’t really understand how to navigate this system and at the time there were very little resources in place for retaining students like myself. I’m not saying that I’m innocent of any blame, or placing all the responsibility on administrative staff. There were many teachers that I had both in High School and my first go at Community College that I thank every day for the lessons that they taught me. If it had not been for some of these mentors, I might have never had a dream to understand more about myself and the world to begin with. Yet, I feel that one of the more common reflections I hear from other non-traditional students like myself who had a difficult time trying to complete a higher education their first time around is that they simply were not prepared or in a position to be able to dedicate the time and effort needed to really take advantage of attaining a higher education. So, quite often, many of us fail to complete our first attempts at college.
Instead, anecdotally, I can say that myself and many of my friends that were in the same position as I expressed our potential in different ways. Since money was of such great concern, I became very dedicated to my employment – although I put less effort into my education. I loved working in food service, and my first consistent position was at Lonestar Steakhouse. I stayed there for several years, forming a deep connection with my work mates, but I always had the urge to finish what I had started in Wake Tech. My first true academic love was in International Relations. I dreamed of working in human securities and counter-intelligence. Though I was unsuccessful in my pursuit of this degree, I was able to leverage the limited advanced education I did receive to take on a job with a private insurance compliance firm that oversaw contracts with private military contractors around the world. There, I was given the opportunity to work with medical professionals from all over the world. It was an eye opening experience to see how medicine, research, global-public health, and national security all tied into one another.
From that experience, I finally understood who I wanted to be and I was determined to pursue a higher education with more determination and discipline. However, by then, I had new responsibilities to worry about as a father, and my road to returning back to school would have to wait. This was a decision I made now that I understood that several things were required for a successful pursuit of a college education: time, support, stability, and most importantly MONEY. To acquire those things, I spent the next 4 years of my life working and building a foundation for myself to hopefully have a fair shot at making it to my degree. Many of my friends in similar positions did not take this road. Instead, they put their efforts into becoming awesome mechanics, chefs, welders, and some joined the military. They are highly capable individuals with happy lives and trades. Sadly, a handful of my friends were not able to make it to any mode of success. Instead, some were lost to the prison system, succumbed to their mental health or drug abuse issues, or simply disappeared to everyone but old Facebook memories.
The Nugget and I, circa 2012.
“34% of first-generation students were over age 30 [in 2012], compared to 17% [students with degree holding parents]… the mean unmet financial need for low-income, first generation students was nearly $6,000 (before loans), which represented half of their median annual income of $12,100.”
– PostSecondary National Policy Institute [ii]
The sad truth is that according to a Pell Institute Study on low-income, first-generation college students, only 11% of this demographic actually make it to a college degree within their first 6 years of being admitted to college. 53% of all first-generation students begin their journey at two-year institutions. Of all undergraduate students, 41% of Black students are first generation, 61% of the enrolled LatinX/Hispanic students are also first generation [i]. A more eyebrow raising fact is that 28% of first-generation students enrolled in college between 2011-2012 were age 30 or above [ii]. Therefore, statistics show that many low-income, first-generation students like myself share similar stories in our journey to a higher education due to unique barriers that the current education system has been slow to address. As a result, many of us slip through the cracks and utilize our potential in different ways that may not be immediately recognized by the academic system and the employers recruiting from these systems; or, simply never reach our fullest potential. All in all, a significant number of talent is lost to seemingly insurmountable barriers and a lack of resources and support.
This translates into a lack of representation in the academic and STEM fields, which I firmly believe limits innovation and scientific discovery across all disciplines. Looking back on my last 4 years of educational experience, I certainly feel that things were very different not just for me, but also with the educational system compared to many of the obstacles I experienced 10 years ago. There are now many resources that Community Colleges and Universities like NC State use to attempt to retain first-generation, low-income students. More and more professors are becoming aware of the unique obstacles that such students face. There is also a slow, but increasing representation of minority professionals in education to serve as examples of success to other students. One of the greatest resources and sources of inspiration I had was in Wake Technical Community College’s research program.
Engaging in scientific research not only bolstered my academic confidence, but it also gave me a sense of purpose and belonging that classroom work alone could not account for. Through my research and the amazing work by Dr. Jackie Swanik, Erin Doughney and Dr. Laura Leverton, I found a community that I could contribute to and obtain funding opportunities that more formal modes of scholarships would have immediately dismissed me from. I was finally given the opportunity to do what I do best: work. It took a team of people to develop this program and recognize that academic success and ingenuity takes different forms and expresses itself in different ways. They also recognized that the success of the program relied on recruiting students from all walks of life and different disciplines.
At NC State, I found similar efforts and the support of my mentor, Dr. Caiti Heil. Despite the short comings in diversity representation in faculty, many of the professors I had the pleasure of learning from and working with all were eager to find ways to improve conditions for minority, first-generation, and low-income students. Several programs, such as SSS and The McNair Scholars Program exist to ensure the retention of this under represented demographic. Additionally, several student organizations and publications, such as The Nubian, exists to give voice to the minority student body and create a sense of community. All of these various moving parts of such a large campus exists to increase the success of under represented students reaching the finish line to earning their degree. But there is still so much work to be done.
As journalist for The Atlantic, Gillian B. White points out about Black professionals in the work force, under represented groups must often work harder than their peers despite less chances of advancement compared to their peers [iii]. This is often the case in the academic settings, today. There are many obstacles that minority and low-income students face, as well as various degrees of systemic discrimination, unconscious bias and formality bias that limit the advancement of students. In STEM, this continues to be a significant factor in the poor numbers of representation by low-income and minority groups in academia and industry.
Of the students who are able to make it through to their degree, the fact that we are able to take on this journey represents a monumental opportunity and privilege to serve our respective communities in ways that others cannot. Just as it is true to that we often must work harder to simply be noticed, we must also take it upon ourselves to make sure that the road to success and opportunity is made wider and more accessible to all those who will come after us. When Dr. Caiti Heil introduced me to SACNAS and the opportunity to start at Chapter at NC State, it became clear that a SACNAS Chapter at NC State could serve as another unique tool catering to the Chicano, Hispanic and Native American community.
Through SACNAS at NC State, my team and I, along with all the members who have joined our cause, look to unite members of our student body into an inviting and supporting community, create a platform that elevates our voices, and opens the space for us to create and contribute to the STEM community. We seek to better understand the issues that affect this community and use the resources provided by the SACNAS National Organization to help more members of our community advance from High School to College, from College to earning their degrees, and hopefully into graduate or professional schools. Through this mission, it is also our goal to unite with other student organizations and community members of all walks of life who have similar challenges, as we promote the narrative that STEM and the well being of the human condition lies in the collective efforts of a diverse and inclusive, multi-disciplinary community of contributors.
By launching this website, we are taking our first step to move past the challenges that COVID-19 brought us in 2020, and open a space where all can participate and feel apart of a supportive community regardless of the distances that the pandemic may continue to force upon us. I also hope that as more students, alumni and faculty become involved in the maintenance and content production of this website and various other web and social media tools, that this website will serve as a lasting legacy for future SACNISTA’s of the Wolfpack family. In the next few weeks, you’ll begin to see updates to the website that includes a calendar of events and a weekly blog post from a member of the team, myself included, or a guest writer.
Along with the weekly blog post, we will strive to deliver regular content from our team members and guest writers/journalist and video-journalists that will document achievements from the many under represented members of our Wolfpack community, as well as reflecting on current events on campus and around the world. As undergraduate students, there may be times were we make a mistake or misrepresent a topic due to our lack of experience, however we will always strive to ensure that our content is relevant, as well researched as possible, and that we constantly evaluate our methods for producing the highest quality content possible. To help in this effort, we recognize that an Editor will be required to help manage and vet the content posted to this site. So if you are interested, please reach out to me. Ideally, we would appreciate the assistance of a graduate student in this position, but all from NC State are welcome to apply for the position beginning in January 2021.
To wrap up this lengthy first letter, I am extremely proud of the work that our team has completed in Fall 2020. Our updates after the end of the semester have been slow on purpose as we all took time to recover from a stressful semester and take the time to get many of the items we wanted to have done completed in time for the spring semester. We are extremely exited to show you what we have planned for Spring of 2021 and beyond and hope that you will be apart of this journey, whether as a reader of our content, a member who attends our meetings, a contributor to our content creation, or a member of our Executive Team.
Image of Osvaldo Rodriguez (Center Right), President of SACNAS at NC State, in the office of U.S. Representative David Price (Far Left), accompanied by Retired Wake Tech Dean, Richard Sullins (Center Left) and Dr. Jackie Swanik (Far Right)
[i] Factsheets – First-Generation Students. (2020). Postsecondary National Policy Institute. https://pnpi.org/first-generation-students/
[ii] National Data Fact Sheets. (2020). Center for First-Generation Student Success. https://firstgen.naspa.org/research-and-policy/national-data-fact-sheets-on-first-generation-college-students/national-data-fact-sheets
[iii] White GB. (2015) Black Workers Really Do Need to Be Twice as Good. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/why-black-workers-really-do-need-to-be-twice-as-good/409276/