Paola E. Peña Garcia is a Ph.D candidate in the Cellular, Molecular & Biomedical Sciences Program at the University of Vermont, Larner College of Medicine.
In the following blog post, Garcia writes about relocating from Puerto Rico and searching for community in her new home.
“Finding community and cultural connections at UVM has had a profound and positive impact on me. I found the sense of belonging and support I was searching for from people who had a mutual understanding of my experiences and struggles in graduate school.”
Transitions are an inevitable part of life. Most of us have a support system, be it our family and friends, our community, or even our pets to help us cope as we move on from one chapter of our life to the next. However, when you are alone, these moments can be difficult.
My Radical Life Transition
For me, one of the most radical life transitions I’ve had was deciding to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Vermont (UVM). I was 23 years old, fresh out of college, and moving during a global pandemic to a place that was 1,847 miles from my home. Between juggling adjusting to living on my own for the first time, graduate level coursework, and laboratory research rotations, I had little time to rebuild the support network I had lost when I left Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, I found myself succeeding and overcoming hurdles throughout my first year, despite the isolation of social distancing and online classes.
Searching for Community
Throughout my second year, although I managed to make friends and connect with peers within my program, I still found myself searching for a sense of community. I longed to connect with people who spoke my language, came from similar cultural backgrounds, and understood my struggles as a minority student in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. Consequently, I began to look for opportunities on campus to establish meaningful connections. In my search, I found SACNAS, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.
SACNAS is an organization dedicated to increasing diversity in STEM. At UVM, the local SACNAS chapter provides professional development and community building activities that are inclusive to all. I had found what I had been searching for: a sense of community, understanding and support. I participated in numerous SACNAS events and served as a mentor but wanted to contribute in a more meaningful way. I was delighted when, in the summer of 2022, I was nominated as president of the UVM SACNAS chapter. This appointment provided me with the opportunity to create experiences and opportunities to benefit the community that had helped me establish the network that supported me during my early doctoral studies.
Chapter of the Year in My ‘Patria’
As president of the UVM SACNAS Chapter, I had the privilege of participating in the SACNAS NDiSTEM 2022 Conference last October alongside nine fellow UVM SACNAS members in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There are no words to describe how proud I felt to be able to share my research and accept the 2022 SACNAS Chapter of the Year award on stage with former UVM SACNAS president Natalia Aristizábal in my ‘patria,’ my home. I was able to share my culture with my peers and friends, those who have described their SACNAS conference experience in Puerto Rico as life-changing and profound, in the sense that they finally felt like they belonged in STEM. Participating in that conference and serving as president in SACNAS has been one of the most influential and rewarding experiences in my career.
The Impact of Finding Community in STEM
My circumstances have changed a lot during the past few years, but there is one thing I know for certain: Finding community and cultural connections at UVM has had a profound and positive impact on me. I found the sense of belonging and support I was searching for from people who had a mutual understanding of my experiences and struggles in graduate school. I aspire to continue growing this community so that incoming students share a sense of camaraderie and support in their personal and professional journeys. As my time as president draws to a close, I am happy in the knowledge that I have contributed to the space where I, and others, can bring our whole selves into science.