Why I Left STEM

One of my earliest memories after immigrating to the United States consists of me sitting at the kitchen table when I was around five years old. As my mom washed the dishes, she gave me multiplication problems to solve. Math was its own language. It was comforting that I could understand it―even when my English was sub-par in elementary school.

My love for math, therefore, began early and continued for years to come. It was always my favorite subject and the one I was constantly praised for as I surprised myself and my teachers with how well I was performing. As my English improved, my love spread to all of STEM since I could now understand it all. My love for STEM centered on Chemistry as I started learning about gas laws during my sophomore year of high school and took AP Chemistry my junior year. More importantly, it was something that I was good at. My mom had always told me to find something that I could do well to make a lot of money because my parents didn’t have the same opportunities.

With this in mind, I entered Harvard with the full intention of studying Chemistry. My first semester, I took math and science classes along with the requirements of Expos and French. I was on the road to success that I thought I wanted and that my parents had always wanted for me—the immigrant dream often recognizes only STEM as a valid field of study.

Then November 9 happened. I remembered how fragile my future became as I watched votes go up for a man who held the fate of my undocumented community in his hands. I suddenly remembered that I had more to worry about than academics. At Harvard, I had almost started to forget that I was undocumented, but my first panic attack that day reminded me.

My mental health interfered with my plans to complete another practice midterm and paper. When I emailed my French professor for an extension, she told me to turn it in whenever I could. In Expos, we spent most of the time discussing what had happened. Meanwhile, there was no mention of the election in my math or science classes. When I asked the head Teaching Fellow for my math class if there was an option to have more time to study for the midterm, I was met with a “just do your best”.

Although I started thinking about other academic options, I stuck with STEM for another semester, knowing this was what my parents wanted but now unsure if it was what was best for me. I convinced myself that academics and personal life were separate things and I thought I had a healthy balance of the two. Second semester, I took on three board positions related to my identities that I felt I had a duty to be involved in because I couldn’t forget about the rest of my life.

But this choice hit me hard. Between all my extracurriculars, I felt like I couldn’t keep up with my classmates even though I went to the math question center four out of five times each week. I remember sitting in my 9 a.m. lecture, looking around and wondering if people were struggling like me—not just academically, but also with this overwhelming amount of imposter syndrome and uncertainty over their futures.

The only sense of true belonging I felt was in my class on Contemporary Immigration and Education Policy at the Graduate School of Education. Professor Roberto G. Gonzales had done an in-depth study on undocumented youth in Los Angeles and his class focused around this topic. I not only felt caught up each week, but I also felt prepared and excited to participate. It was the three hour period of happiness before the five hour lab I had every other week.

It wasn’t until someone asked why I was doing STEM that I realized I no longer had an answer. I felt empty. And I felt scared because I had always seen the way non-STEM people were viewed by STEM people. I thought leaving STEM would make me feel inferior until I saw all the geniuses that were coming out of those fields and that success did not depend on money.

Slowly, I began to become reassured by other people’s responses that what you study should be something you love. And with this support, I slowly started to free myself from those chemical chains. I looked through the courses I had always wanted to take and just the names of them excited me. This was where I needed to be—for my own self-care and my own success.

This semester, I am taking classes that feel more supportive. When reading the syllabus for one of my classes, I noticed that we had three “grace days” to use as we needed.

When the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was rescinded, it was discussed in three out of my four classes. I witnessed my current professors getting arrested protesting the DACA repeal. And I felt like my life outside of class was validated as they recognized that my success is a product of factors beyond “doing my best.”

I recently declared a concentration in History and Literature where I can study topics that are aligned with my interests in immigration and filled with professors who I know will be there for me.

But even still, I often think about what my academic path would've looked like had I been given the right support in STEM. I wonder if I would’ve felt more welcome if I didn’t have to constantly deal with all of my intersecting identities—especially my immigration status. I am happy to have left STEM, but I also hope that STEM can become an area where students are seen as human beings dealing with questions beyond their problem sets.

Laura S. Veira-Ramirez ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House.

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