Lack of Diversity In STEM is Dangerous For Our Students

These experiences allowed me to follow my passion, but they also drove home how rare it was to be a young Latina in engineering, and how necessary it was for there to be more diversity in the STEM fields.
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Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

As a senior in high school, I had my sights set on attending the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. I had just moved to the Garden State, having spent the previous four years living in Ecuador, where I was born. My guidance counselor tried to talk me into applying to a state school instead.

I'm sure her intentions were good (she voiced her concern about my ability to pay for the private Stevens) but the message I received was clear and full of doubt: that I wouldn't make it at Stevens.

This was the second time that my academic abilities had been questioned upon my return from Ecuador. If it weren't for my parents convincing the school to administer an entrance exam, I would have been automatically placed in the remedial math class. I scored high enough for all honors and Advanced Placement courses.

Perhaps my school and guidance counselor didn't think I had it in me because they didn't see other Latinos excelling in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, collectively known as STEM. According to a 2011 National Science Foundation report, the U.S. science and engineering workforce is comprised of 55 percent white men and just 1 percent Hispanic women.

This lack of diversity in STEM is dangerous. It's what makes teachers and students doubt what is possible.

Truth be told, I was more than equipped to handle the rigor of high school and Stevens. The school I attended in Ecuador followed the International Baccalaureate program -- standard throughout the world and designed to make students competitive in today's global market. My school understood that most of the students it educated wouldn't stay in Ecuador. It was their charge to prepare us for success in any setting, field and country we chose to be in.

After I graduated (with high honors) from the engineering program at Stevens, I worked as a mechanical designer in the space systems industry. These experiences allowed me to follow my passion, but they also drove home how rare it was to be a young Latina in engineering, and how necessary it was for there to be more diversity in the STEM fields.

In college, I became involved with the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). SHPE helped me connect with other STEM enthusiasts who shared my background. We pushed and encouraged each other, because we knew that our community was not an accurate representation of the larger engineering work force.

Last week I attended the annual SHPE conference in Indianapolis, where presenters and attendees came together to explore what's possible for the next generation of Hispanic students. I was presenting on behalf of Teach For America, a nonprofit committed to spreading educational opportunity, and giving students in low-income communities the academic base to become whatever they can dream of becoming.

When one considers that Hispanic students make up 20 percent of the student body at high schools offering calculus, but only 10 percent of the students taking calculus, a direct relationship can be drawn between the limited STEM opportunities our children are exposed to and the historic underrepresentation of Latinos in STEM fields.

We must carve out pathways for Latino students to pursue STEM in P-12 education and beyond. At the SHPE conference, we began to do just that.

We asked ourselves how we as a Hispanic community can build relationships across organizations and sectors to provide opportunities for our students to become STEM leaders. We questioned how we could reach students with Hispanic role models in the STEM fields. What would this collaboration look like?

I had asked myself these same questions after four years of working in the space systems industry. What would it take to get more people who looked like me working alongside me? I knew that providing an excellent STEM education to students diverse in race, background, and socioeconomic status was key, and so I joined Teach For America as a 2012 New York corps member. I am currently in my second year of teaching high school physics.

The reality of teaching in an inner city school is several orders of magnitude tougher than I expected. There are many students entering high school several grade levels behind where they should be, and that is only the beginning of the problem. The lack of resources ranges from lack of text books, to outdated and non-functional lab equipment. In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- these factors, I challenge my students to become problem solvers. I am determined that when they leave my class, and eventually high school, they have the tools they need to continue their education and find a fulfilling career.

In that conference space in Indianapolis, it became apparent that some Latinos are thriving in STEM. But "some" is not enough.

It is imperative that we have more diverse individuals leading the way in STEM fields, to give not only themselves a voice, but to speak on behalf of their communities. In my classroom, I have students from around the globe. I know that together, we will reach the day when all of them see people from their backgrounds excelling in STEM -- and that no one will ever question their abilities because of how they look and a lack of precedent.

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