The Power of Privilege: a Mexican Ecologist in Academia in the USA? – Guest Post

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.

If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer. I welcome content on #MakeupMonday (the initial impetus was a Twitter follower asking for #MakeupMonday posts oriented toward women of color) as well as anything related to the academic and post-academic career. Today’s post is by Dr. Adriana L. Romero-Olivares.

Dr. Adriana L. Romero-Olivares is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of New Hampshire. Her research examines the ecosystem-scale consequences of the adaptation of soil fungi to climate change. She uses a combination of traditional microbiological techniques and field work, coupled with molecular biology and biogeochemical analytical tools. Ultimately, she’s interested in advancing knowledge on fungal ecology and apply her discoveries to protect our environment for future generations. Follow @fungi_lover

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Ecology and the appreciation of nature is highly associated to privilege, this is one of the main problems of the lack of diversity in academia in ecology in the USA. As a Mexican, born and raised in Mexico, I was lucky. I had the privilege of having access to higher education regardless of my background or my race. I had the privilege to be encouraged by high-school teachers to pursue a career in sciences. I had the privilege to go to a public university and get whatever degree I wanted almost for free (annual tuition was $800 Mexican pesos, at the time approximately $80 USD). I had the privilege to not be segregated by school districts. I had the privilege to always have role models throughout college that had similar life experiences to mine and who look like me. I had the privilege to have mentors who amplify my voice. I had the privilege to be granted opportunities. Now, I’ve been in the USA for six years and I understand the privilege behind pursuing a career in ecology and the power mentors and role models have had in my professional development. In the USA , there is a lot of interest and efforts going into recruiting POC into STEM, ecology included, but not enough is being done to retain them. The education privileges that I had as a Mexican woman in Mexico pursuing a STEM degree, should be the same for every POC in the USA. Here’s my story.

I came to the US in 2012 as an international student to pursue a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Southern California. I was born and raised in the north of Mexico in the state of Sonora, so traveling with a tourist visa across the border to the USA is something that I’ve done throughout my entire life. I used my tourist visa mostly to travel to Nogales, AZ to buy shoes and clothes. I am very tall compared to the average Mexican woman, so getting clothes in Mexico was complicated; but finding shoes my size, and jeans that were not “unintentional capris” was easy in the USA. Overall, growing up in the Mexico-USA border area, I knew a lot of people who migrated to the USA, including family members. I was jealous. The way I saw it, living in the USA was great. You didn’t have to wear a uniform to go to school, you could buy clothes that fit most sizes (including tall people like me), affordable Crayolas, plastic boxes for your pens and pencils, Lisa Frank stuff, and many other things that my 10-year-old self considered priorities in the early 1990’s.    

But at the same time, I would hear negative comments from friends and family about their experience living in the USA; most comments were along the lines of racism. Although Mexico is no stranger to racism, overall, the opportunities for Mexicans regardless of color are ‘somewhat’ well distributed, especially for lower- to upper-middle class people (although there is still a lot to be done regarding equal opportunities for indigenous people). For example, I come from a working class family in Mexico. I’m first generation college-graduate, I grew up in a big city in a neighborhood with gang activity, I’m brown, I’m a woman, and I have a BS in Biology, an MS in Molecular Ecology, and a PhD in Biological Sciences. I can’t help but wonder, given my background, what are the chances I would’ve accomplish all this if I grew up in the USA?  Many POC in the USA grow up in similar conditions to the ones I grew up in Mexico, but I have not met one of them yet who is a professor in Ecology.

I learned English at a very young age. I had a scholarship to attend a private elementary school where I learned to read, write, and speak English. Most kids in the school were rich and white. I was neither, and was discriminated for both, but the one that hurt me the most was the discrimination associated to something inherently mine that I couldn’t change: being brown.

This is a wide spread problem in Mexico that’s finally coming out and finally being acknowledged (learn more about this here). After elementary school, I moved on to the public education system for middle school and high school. Here, I felt like home, without discrimination and with a sense of belonging, I thrived. I got very good grades, I participated in district- and state-wide competitions on Chemistry and Biology. I joined the History club and the Philosophy club and was encouraged by several teachers in high school to study a career in sciences, and I did. I was supported, encouraged, and not discriminated against based on my sex or race at a crucial age, which is key to recruit girls in STEM according to this study. In addition, worrying about paying for college was not a concern because university tuitions are fairly affordable to middle class families in Mexico compared to the USA.

In college, most of my professors were men but there were a few women. I experienced some sexual harassment from a few male professors -which is sadly very common in universities in Mexico- but I was lucky; the harassment was not unbearable and it was overshadowed by an outstanding group of great supportive professors, both men and women. Overall, I did really well during my college degree and graduated with honors. I did my master’s in a small but amazing department with mostly women professors, and again, I did really well. I was encouraged to apply to a PhD in the USA with a full scholarship from the Mexican government, and despite my extremely low GRE scores, I got in. Once again, the strong support and encouragement of role models, including many of them who looked like me,  helped me tremendously on my road to pursuing a PhD in Ecology.

Fast forward a few months, I’m sitting in ecology group a few weeks into my PhD program in the USA. Today’s topic: “addressing lack of diversity in ecology”. I was taking notes because this was so new to me. Diversity? What do they mean? I start to hear about a lack of women in science, and a lack of people of color in science, and all of a sudden I feel very self-aware; there’s only 2 non-whites in the room, myself and another grad student. I got flashbacks from elementary school, except this time there’s no discrimination; in fact, the opposite, there’s an interest in inclusiveness. The other person of color was my office mate back then, so when we went back to our office she told me she felt really uncomfortable having a bunch of white people discuss the lack of people of color in sciences, but she was happy this was being finally addressed. And then she asked me, “how did you feel, especially being the only Hispanic in the room?”. I was so confused, I don’t even recall what I said. A few weeks later I read a proposal where I was used in the section of broader impacts: “a Hispanic PhD student in my lab…” I was again really puzzled about what was so important about my ethnicity in the sciences and ecology in the USA.   

There was a disconnection between how I felt versus how I was perceived. I did not feel Hispanic –  whatever that meant – I was Mexican. At first, I did not feel that the lack of women and people of color in sciences and ecology was a problem. I came from Mexico, where all my professors were Mexican, some light brown, some dark brown, some white, some blonde, some women, yes, most men. Granted, there was a lack of women in science in general, but the race portion was very difficult for me to grasp. Sadly, it didn’t take long for me to start experiencing micro-aggressions: “oh, you’re a ‘real’ Mexican”, “you’re so well-spoken for a Mexican”, “were you really born and raised in Mexico?”, “you’re so tall for a Mexican” (I have to agree with this one though), and my favorite, “you must be very smart, I never heard of a Mexican pursuing a PhD”. I do want to point out that none of these aggressions happened with colleagues nor in any academic event, but some of them happened in university settings or in university-related events. I know they all came from a place of ignorance, but still they were offensive and mostly, unbearably annoying.   

So yes, it took no time for me to be fully aware of what it is like to be Hispanic in the USA, and not only Hispanic: a brown, Mexican woman. What a load to carry. I thought of all the people I knew that had migrated to the USA, and what I once thought was an amazing and an incredible opportunity, was still amazing and incredible, but came with certain obstacles that I needed to address. So even though I felt a disconnect with being classified as “Hispanic”, I chose to embrace it.

Due to my very long name (including two last names), my accent, and how I look, as soon as I started to TA, there were always students at the end of class that would approach me and asked me where I was from. Most of these students were Hispanics too and they had questions. A lot. They wanted to know how I got into grad school, what my family thought about me pursuing a career in sciences, how it was like to be the only person with a college degree in my family, what my parents do for living, how was I brought up, did my parents encouraged me to study sciences (short answer: no), and a list of endless questions associated to my experience as a Hispanic pursuing a career in ecology.

I noticed immediately that these students and I were culturally the same, and they could tell too. They needed to connect with someone with similar life experiences to feel that pursuing a career in sciences, perhaps in ecology, was possible. I started to do outreach in local communities of southern California, in areas mostly populated by Mexicans and other Hispanics, and I found that I had a great impact in these kids. What usually surprises them the most is not that I’m a woman, it’s not that I’m an ecologist with a PhD, it’s not the fact that I do amazing science, it’s not that I work with microbes, it’s the fact that on top of all of that, I’m Mexican. Very often I hear, “you’re the first Mexican I’ve ever met with a PhD”; it’s bittersweet. I’m happy they finally get to meet a Mexican woman with a PhD, but I’m sad that I’m the only one they’ve ever met. Recruiting is important, but retaining is crucial. Let’s create a scientific environment where people of color are as visible as anyone else.


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