Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

How They Beat the Odds

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

How They Beat the Odds

Article excerpt

Chicana scientists share stories of overcoming obstacles to achieve professional success


Their disciplines range from psychology to mathematics to biology, but their stories are nearly interchangeable. Chicano women have been making strides in academia in recent years, but much of that progress has come while battling racial, cultural and gender prejudice. A group of Chicano women, all high-ranking academicians, participated in a book project to provide anecdotes about how they overcame those obstacles to succeed at some of the foremost academic and government institutions in the country. They also spoke of their experiences as part of the "Chicanas in Math, Science, and Education," panel during the annual conference of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Obtaining an education in science and mathematics was no small feat for women of their era, doubly so for Chicanas.

The number of women earning degrees in the sciences has increased every year since 1966. A National Science Foundation study shows that as recently as 1996, only 39 percent of all women enrolled in graduate and postdoctoral education were in the sciences. That year, 500 more Hispanic women enrolled in science programs than in 1995. Despite their gains, however, under-represented minorities still comprise only 11 percent of the enrollment Of that percentage, 5 percent are Hispanic and 0.5 percent are American Indian. Enrollment of minority women in graduate and post-doctoral programs increased slightly between 1980 and 1996, with a 1 percent gain.

But what statistics do not tell are the struggles Chicanas had to overcome to reach their positions. A book titled For Sciencia, edited by Dr. Norma E. Cantu, a professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio, details these pioneering women's paths in their own words.

Dr. Elma Gonzalez, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, spoke of her childhood in migrant camps in Texas. Her parents took jobs weeding cotton so their children could stay in school for as long as possible throughout the year. Gonzalez had a high-school guidance counselor who encouraged her to go to college.

Dr. Maria Elena Zavala, a professor of biology at California State University, Northridge, recalled a conversation that she had with a teacher as a child. "You're a Mexican, and you can read!" the teacher said. Zavala's mother's response to her daughter was: "Yes, you are a Mexican, and you are supposed to read. …

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