By Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes
A couple of months ago I found myself wondering how I was going to navigate applying to graduate school by myself this coming cycle. To some people, applying is not that big of a deal. They have a mom, dad, multiple mentors to go to for help. For people like me, a first-generation college student born to immigrant parents living at or below the poverty line, this seems like an impossible task. Who do you ask for help?
It got me thinking about my undergraduate application process. High school counselors and teachers guided and mentored me through the application process. I was also a part of College Match Los Angeles, an organization that provides high achieving low-income students with free SAT prep, college tours, and help with applying to college and financial aid. It literally took a village to get me to Williams College.
While at Williams I had one mentor in particular that not only took an interest in my success at Williams but also ensured that I had a game plan for achieving both my short term and long term goals. Along the way, especially towards the end of my time at Williams I met professors that understood me and really saw me. All of me. I may not have had the opportunity to be academically mentored by a professor who looked like me in the STEM fields, but seeing her as a professor on tenure-track at Williams did more for me than she will ever know.
Which brings me back to a couple of months ago when I was expressing my concerns about the graduate school application process to a couple of my best friends. One of my friends, who applied to biochemistry and chemical biology programs, took it upon herself to share everything she had learned from the application process with me. A second friend, who will be applying to medical school and thus does not have a lot of knowledge on the graduate school application process (PhD), recommended I look into Cientifico Latino. Cientifico Latino aims to make the application process easier by pairing applicants with a mentor, either a PhD student or a post-doctoral fellow in a specified field, who will guide the mentee through the application process. Because my relationship with my current laboratory is tenuous, I sought out my former Williams mentor and he suggested The Women+ of Color Project (WOCP). WOCP organizes a three day workshop for women of color interested in the physical sciences and mathematics, providing 50 women+ of color with direct mentorship, and 100 women+ of color with access to recordings of the workshops.
As I continue preparing for the graduate school application process, I’m constantly reminded of the value and importance of mentors and mentorship. Mentorship can be difficult to find and definitely requires two-way interest. I sought out every mentor that I’ve formed a relationship with and it was immensely helpful when my mentor had a strong desire to share their knowledge with me and invest in me. Professors, friends, and/or coworkers can all be possible people to form a mentor/mentee relationship with. Mentors don’t necessarily have to be 50 years old and a full professor. Personally, many of my mentors are people around my age. A different way to meet mentors is through mentorship programs. Cientifico Latino and WOCP are just two of many programs available to aspiring STEM graduate students. For example SU(5) provides support and mentorship to incoming physics and astronomy graduate students. Project SHORT is dedicated to supporting graduate school and pre-health applicants. The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), and BioAcCES all organize conferences each year for underrepresented minority students in STEM and provide different resources which may include mentoring programs.
While there is no doubt that the application process is daunting, it can also be a chance to find your people. People who will cheer you on, pick you up when you’re down, and remind you of your worth when imposter syndrome threatens to take over. It’s important to not only have mentors ourselves but also to pass on the knowledge to those coming after us. Like Toni Morrison so perfectly put it, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” Reach back and help those trailing you. Pass on information you wish you had, resources you needed, job listings you know about. Mentorship and community are integral parts of succeeding in spaces that weren’t designed for people like us. Despite the lack of consideration for us and our experiences, we have an ever growing community willing to help each other into these spaces.
Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes is an aspiring chemistry professor. She hopes to use her chemistry and Latinx Studies education to teach chemistry in a culturally relevant way. Her research interests lie at the intersection of chemical biology and ethnic studies. Jennyfer is passionate about making STEM diverse, inclusive, and equitable through advocacy and education. She enjoys doing her make-up, listening to music, and spending time with her friends.