CULTURE OF DIVERSITY
Conference embraces immigrant, LGBT students in science
Becoming a physician can be a challenge for many students, but Christopher Ponce’s immigration status creates additional hurdles.
Ponce, whose parents brought him to Texas from Mexico when he was just 4 years old, is able to stay in this country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. He recently graduated from Texas Tech but now he’s finding medical schools in Texas won’t accept him because of the program’s uncertain future under the Trump administration.
Fortunately, he said, he met a recruiter for the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanic & Native Americans in Science who helped him secure an internship and a job as a research assistant in Oregon, where he may be able to continue his education.
“Maybe next fall I’ll be in medical school and everything will have all been worth it,” Ponce, 23, said Friday.
Ponce was among the thousands of science, technology, engineering and mathematics students, scientists and researchers who gathered at the Henry B. Gonzalez Conis vention Center for the society’s annual National Diversity in STEM Conference, which ends today.
The 45-year-old organization’s mission is supporting underrepresented minorities in pursuing advanced degrees, careers and leadership positions in STEM fields.
John D. Winnett, executive director, said helping undocumented and LGBT students part of the society’s commitment to diversity.
“We ask our attendees to always bring their whole selves to STEM and not check their culture at the door when they arrive,” he said. “We need those differences within our membership and attendees to guide where we’re going.”
The commitment extends to practical matters; bathrooms on the first and third floors of the Convention Center are designated as gender neutral to accommodate students’ requests.
“I was just blown away by all of the inclusivity,” said Elizabeth Cervantes, 19, a student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “I went into one of the gender neutral bathrooms and I just cried. It’s something that’s so incredibly inspiring.”
When planning was underway last year for the conference, controversy erupted over a bill in the Texas Legislature that would have required Texans to use public bathrooms based on their biological sex. Numerous national organizations threatened to — and some did — cancel planned conventions in Texas.
Society president Lino Gonzalez said the organization never considered backing out.
“It felt disingenuous to say we’re going to pull this conference out of the state,” he said. “It felt like abandoning the people who live here and can’t do anything about the legislation except vote.”
Winnett said organization leaders thought their mission would be better served by coming to Texas, not staying away.
“It is our obligation as a national organization to use the power of a national voice to influence, shape and change policies across this country,” Winnett said.
Evelyn Valdez-Ward, a third year Ph.D. student at the University of California at Irvine, became an advocate for the undocumented community after she experienced a series of rejections because of her DACA status.
She’s appreciates the society’s support and said she’s concerned about the DACA students’ lack of access to federally funded grants for scientific pursuits.
“All of our opportunities are incredibly limited,” she said.
Clarissa Mae de Leon, a student at St. Edward’s University in Austin who came out last year, said her love of mycology, the study of fungi, mirrors her love for her family and her culture. She said she looks forward to following the example of two people from her small town of Lavilla in South Texas who are now doctoral candidates.
“Maybe one day I could come back to the community and give back,” de Leon said. “SACNAS is very important in allowing me to see that dream come into fruition.”
Omase Omoruyi shares her research on star formation with Chukwunoso Arinze on Friday during the 45th annual National Diversity in STEM Conference at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
Graduate student and DACA activist and advocate Elizabeth Valdez-Ward listens to a presentation at the diversity conference.
Christopher Ponce answers attendees’ questions Friday during the conference, which aims to support underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and math.