The Struggles and Wonders of a First-Generation STEM Student

Angel D’az is an undergraduate senior at Boise State University studying business and economic analytics. He is a first-generation immigrant who was a year away from graduating with a music degree before having a self-realization and turning toward a career in data analysis.

I am the first in my family to go to college, study STEM, or work in a white-collar office. I am entering my 15th and final semester of undergraduate study, so I am familiar with the sleepless nights that go with choosing the “right” career path. I want to share my experiences entering STEM and, perhaps most importantly, staying in it. I hope through my experiences, I can help other students who were also born between two worlds.

No incoming college freshman is a clean slate who is willing and able to stick through a STEM degree. Although I am technically a first-generation immigrant, I have lived a life in between a first- and second-generation immigrant. I was born in El Salvador and came to America as a baby. However, my parents over-sheltered me because they were children during a brutal civil war and I was an almost fatally sick infant and kidnapped on our journey to America. For the first 15 years of my life, most of what I knew was the Salvadoran culture of my parents. I was 12 years old when I first noticed someone spread peanut butter with a butter knife. I thought knives were only for cutting. This type of blameless ignorance has led to struggles and wonder during my budding STEM career.

My parents and I first lived in a studio apartment with five other people. My mother slept on a mattress fished out of a dumpster while pregnant with my brother, and my father slept on the floor. My parents were “low-skill” immigrants, but extremely “high-grit.” One of my earliest memories is trying to stomp on aluminum cans so my parents could bring in a bit more income from recycling them. My mother stayed at home until she could work during school hours, and my father was a manual laborer—one of the ones who stood outside home improvement stores—in the beginning. He soon became a roofer and, after saving a little capital, started a towing company with my mother. Throughout this, they both went to English night school on and off.

Occasionally, my father came home from work and said, “Miren vichos (“Look boys”). Put your hands next to mine.” He placed his calloused, scarred, and greasy hands on the dining room table. My brother and I placed our small, smooth, brown hands next to his, and he stated, “You will do better than me.”

My guidance was strong on the big picture, but lacking in all the little steps. I did well in elementary school with my mother’s encouragement, but collapsed under the weight of middle and high school. My parents were woefully unequipped to teach algebra or provide white-collar career guidance or tutors. They despaired at my endless stream of Cs and Ds in high school. There was no knowledge of SATs, ACTs, college admission processes, etc. I was given two pieces of advice: “You can do whatever you set your mind to” and “Do what you love.”

When given options, my mind froze and I could not make a choice. “Do what you love” was also ineffective, because I did not have enough life experience to know what I would love for a career. Both pieces of advice were well intentioned, but because they were general, they did not address my needs as an individual.

In college, my wandering took different forms. I spent three years as an obsessed musician, practicing my trombone out of a fear of failure. The dam that held me back from choosing a more lucrative, or STEM, career burst when I realized I had a set of values I was putting aside to pursue a career in music. I found it hard to trust my own instincts after this moment of self-awareness and spent two years jumping between engineering, marketing, and finance. Without knowing anything about the data and statistics fields, I knew I wanted quantitative, computer, and people skills. I valued autonomy and believed these three skills would provide me the most of it.

A few years ago, the college of business and economics at Boise State revealed my current degree: a BS in business and economic analytics with a minor in computer science. It was also just one class short of a minor in applied mathematics. It had everything I dreamed of but never took the steps to pursue, so I switched majors for the final time within a few days.

The gift of high-grit from my parents has been a curse and a blessing. It caused me to stick through seven years of undergraduate school, avoid much debt through pizza delivery, overload myself (consistently and unfortunately), and push through class failures and drops. I maintained a decent, but not great, 3.27 GPA and will graduate in December with 227 attempted credits.

My hardest times in STEM have been when I feel I do not belong. I once had to make a request of a coworker at an internship, so I asked my supervisor how I should word it. I was told to write in “plain English.” While growing up, the only adults outside of school I communicated with were construction workers, electricians, mechanics, etc. My supervisor was unaware of how scared I was about miscommunicating in an environment that was foreign to me.

Another example is reading ahead in class. I would read a textbook, but even after taking it slow and breaking it down, I would still not understand. Professors who have sent me back to the book, instead of training me to understand the texts, have been discouraging. I have collapsed many times under this emotional pressure, unable to figure out what I do not know. When I see classmates succeed while I fail, despite my efforts, I conclude I do not belong where they do.

In contrast, the times in which I am encouraged to continue in STEM are the times in which professionals treat me as an individual. Professors who see beyond the “uniform” of a student and ask about and listen to my individual pleas, are the ones who have encouraged me the most. I believe the best way to combat under-represented STEM student drop-out rates is to both explicitly and implicitly let the students know they belong.

Explicit communication is easy. It is enough to say, “You belong in this classroom and in your career.” Implicit communication through creating inclusive environments is more difficult, however. It requires compassion to see a butter knife, like I did at 12 years old, and not assume everyone knows it can be used for spreading. Professionals with compassion have helped me see the wonders in STEM, or more specifically, statistics. The people who have dreamed alongside with me have made, and always will make, the most positive impact on my life.