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This researcher wants to help undocumented students find their place in STEM [Crosscut]


By Manola Secaira, July 25, 2019, Crosscut

While growing up undocumented, Verónica Guajardo didn't see a place for herself in STEM. Now, she's a researcher who's helping students like herself find their own paths.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

I was actually an undocumented student for many years. I came to the U.S. about two or three years after I was born, when I was fairly young, from Guadalajara, Jalisco, in Mexico. Then my parents moved to the Central Valley [of California] from the Los Angeles Basin area to have more secure work. At the time in L.A., there was very overt and explicit raids on communities with Border Patrol cruising in their green trucks everywhere. In the Central Valley, you need labor to pick fruits and to maintain the crops. People looked the other way when those people are there, right? 

My mom's thing was this: “My kids need to be able to get a job after high school and go to work.” She wanted to make sure you finish high school and that you speak English very, very well so that you can get a supervisor's job at the local cannery, because that's where she worked. The cannery was always more desirable than other work because it had set times versus migrant work. 

The packinghouse and canneries were the number-one employers in town. You had thousands of people showing up, three shifts, 24 hours a day. My mom wanted me to get a job as a supervisor because they pay 20 bucks an hour. They wear the white hat, they walk around, they do samples, they don't really get dirty — they come home. They don't smell like tomato, they don't smell like peaches. So for a long time, that was really the only goal that I had, to finish high school and become a supervisor because it's 20 bucks an hour — that's a lot of money.

But it didn't really work out that way. I went to a high school that was basically a dumping ground for students of color, students that were underprepared. They tracked us into technical, hands-on work, not necessarily academic. I never took algebra. I never took anything that was not necessarily hands-on. I did auto mechanic, I did wood shop, metal. I didn't really have any academic skill per se, nor did I know any different. So when [my friend asked me], "What are you gonna do?" I said, "Well, you know, the cannery." She's like, "Well, you should consider a community college. I'm going to go to the community college." 

“Why would I go to college? That's for smart people or people who have lots of money." She's like, "No dummy, this is totally for you. You should come with me and we'll check it out." 

I took my placement exam. I'm proud to say that I placed at beginning for everything — beginning English, beginning math, beginning everything. In many ways, I think I did high school again [in college]. It wasn't something that was expected of me. But once I got into it, I was like, "OK, this is cool. I understand the more credentials you have, the better pay you will have." 

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