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aaron velasco

Aaron Velasco, PhD

As a kid, I didn’t really understand why my world was so isolated. One of my early memories from childhood was growing up in La Habra, the Los Angeles area of Southern California. We rented a house there and tried to settle into a community with very few other Latinos. I remember going with my mother to our new neighbor’s house to introduce ourselves once we had moved in. The first thing that came out of the neighbor’s mouth was, “Why are Mexicans so lazy?” Back then I don’t think I really realized why no one in our neighborhood really talked to us much, and at that age, I hadn’t learned to care yet.
One of the things that my parents instilled in my siblings and me was that we should work hard, go to school, and do the right thing. In this way, we avoided focusing on the negative, and we could contradict the stereotypes people like our neighbor imposed upon us. Despite our hard work, we still fought against a lot of ignorance and discrimination. I remember during high school my brother, who was lighter skinned then me, being asked, “Why is it that your brother looks white, and you look like a Spic?” That was the actual terminology that was used.
When I went to college, I thought I was going to be an aerospace engineer because as a child I was interested in being an astronaut. Then when I went to school, I realized an engineering degree wasn’t really what I wanted. I was good at math, and I loved being outside, so I figured I should stick to something more “earthly” although I still didn’t have a clue what it should be. It wasn’t until my fifth year as an undergraduate at University of California, Los Angeles that I took a geophysics class and realized I had an interest in the field. The people who I took geophysics courses from were actually seismologists. When they wrote me letters of recommendation for graduate schools, other seismologists at graduate schools recognized the other seismologists’ names and accepted me with the idea that I was interested in that field of study. Essentially I got into seismology by fortunate accident.
I was accepted to an East Coast university and the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), for graduate school, but after visiting the school back East, I decided against attending the college. I was very turned off by the school and faculty members who basically told me, “The only reason you’re getting funding to come is because of your last name.”
In my first few months at the UCSC, I was very intimidated. I didn’t have much exposure early on to seismology like some of the other students because I had only just begun pursuing any interest in the field. I felt like I was behind even though I was not. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I could relate to a lot of the students there whose parents were wealthy and had attended college themselves. It took me five years to earn my degree at UCSC, which is good, coming from an undergraduate degree to finishing with a Ph.D. The hard work and determination that my parents had instilled in me as a child paid off.
There were many times early on in school when I thought about leaving to get a job and help my family financially, but they would not let me. When I got out of school, I initially worked for a company in San Diego, not a school, so that I could insure job security and make more money then at a university.
Now I have the job security necessary to comfortably pursue other goals. One of my current hopes is that I will end up in a leadership position so I can affect policy change. Things that I’ve been pushing for lately have to do with exposing minorities to the geosciences. My position as a faculty member at a major university (University of Texas at El Paso) is a good one for promoting diversity. My job position helps me advocate for getting more minorities funding for research. I had always avoided this kind of work before because I wanted to be seen not as a minority but as a scientist first, who happens to be a minority.
I learned early on that if I worked hard I could achieve my most far-reaching goal. Some people will always view you negatively. That’s just the way it is. I believe to affect change, you really have to contribute to progression yourself. Serving as a mentor for students is one way I try to do that. I want students to know they can achieve their goals, whether they are earth bound or heading for the stars.