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Bridging Cultures in Learning: My Journey as a Latinx Doctoral Student in Science Education

My name is Regina Ayala Chavez; I have two last names because that is the tradition in Mexico. My first last name is from my father, and the second is from my mother. Having two last names is hard in this country because people are not used to it, so they think “Ayala” is my middle name, but I wear my two last names with pride even when it makes bureaucracy harder.

I moved to the United States with my husband when I was 27 years old. Two years after I started my doctoral program in science education at North Carolina State University, I faced significant challenges regarding my background. I had studied English in school since I was a kid, but learning in a classroom and needing to use it to express my ideas was totally different.

I remember two main challenges when I started the classes: reading fast enough and learning about the U.S. educational system. I had difficulties keeping up with my peers; I couldn’t read as quickly as they did, so I didn’t finish the paper every time the discussion started. This was very discouraging until one Mexican professor told me that it doesn’t matter if I can’t keep up, that I speak two languages, and that was also valuable. He helped me with some techniques to read faster and focus only on the crucial things in the articles. Thanks to him, I improved my reading and felt more capable of keeping up with my peers.

The second challenge was learning about the U.S. educational system. Even though the Mexican and the U.S. educational systems have similarities, they work differently. I was taking classes with former teachers who knew everything about the system, so they had lengthy discussions about classroom problems, but I needed help understanding it. Little by little, I began to learn, thanks to my classmates and because I read a lot about the subject outside of classes. All this new knowledge allows me to know more about the inequalities Latinos face in the educational system, making me more interested in reducing them.

But only some things are hard, thanks to my intersectionality. I have been able to help and collaborate on several projects for the inclusion of Latino students. I have translated into Spanish science materials for NASA. I volunteer at the Museum of Life and Science for Spanish explanations. I had a job in a children’s museum to understand the Hispanic/Latinx visitors and make the new exhibit more inclusive. Currently, I work in educational consulting where I am the leader of several projects that involve increasing the participation of the Hispanic/Latinx population in museums, earth science careers, and YouTube science content.

Being a Latin American person in this country has been difficult. Still, thanks to people I have met along the way, like that professor, my cohort, and scholarship programs like Holmes, I have found the necessary support to succeed in my doctorate and work life.

Regina Ayala Chavez is an AACTE Holmes Scholar at North Carolina State University, where she is a science education doctoral student.

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