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rebecca garcia

Rebecca Garcia, PhD

I was born in Guam, a small tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. The Chamorro people migrated to Guam some 1500 years ago. Fast forward about one millennium, the island was claimed a colony of Spain by the (in)famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan. For nearly 500 years, the people were indoctrinated by the Spanish Jesuit priests and their “missionaries,” who brought with them a host of diseases like small pox and influenza. These diseases, along with the islanders attempt to return to their former ways of life, wiped out nearly 95% of the island’s inhabitants. The conquerors saw the need to restock the population, and this brought an end to the pure Chamorro bloodline. After the Spanish-American war, in the Treaty of Paris, Guam was ceded to the United States along with island nations like the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico.  We islanders still identify ourselves as Chamorros. In our culture, we place a high value on family.
Growing up financially unstable, I saw the importance of to reaching the point where I could take care of my family, and I knew that education was the key to having that privilege. I was probably six years old, flipping through the pages of an old dictionary, when I came across a small section about the different degrees in education, “Ph.D.: one of the highest academic degrees.” It was then when I started to dream of that different life.
I knew I had to leave my little island in order to get my degree. Throughout my schooling, I was serious about reaching my goal, so I allowed myself to be who I was and not try to fit in with the others. At the time, our schools had limited and outdated materials and equipment, but our teachers were dedicated, encouraging and supportive. They often said to me, ”Go to the best college you can, do the best that you can, and go as far as you can go.”
The idea that family comes first also had an effect on where I ended up going to college. Although I received a full scholarship to the University of Portland, my parents wanted me to be near my brother, who went to school in Los Angeles. My entire family (six of us!) flew to California and we marched into the admissions office at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) with my unofficial high school transcript. My mom met with the dean of admissions and showed him my records and asked if they would accept me. To my surprise, he said yes! Though it wasn’t my first choice, I was happy to stay close to my family. I realized that having done well in school opened up these doors of opportunity. Looking back, I would have done it the same way all over again, as embarrassing as it was!
Although LA is huge, the campus at LMU was comfortably sized, so I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I started my studies as a pre-med chemistry major. I quickly learned that even though I won an island-wide competition with my high school chemistry project, chemistry wasn’t for me. However, I really enjoyed my calculus class and did well enough that my professor, the late and great Dr. Mike Cullen, suggested I major in math. Later in my undergraduate career, Dr. Herbert Medina took me under his wing and became my mentor.  He informed me of programs I could do to advance my career as a mathematician and invited me to work on some undergraduate research questions with him. He opened doors I never knew existed.
In the end, I received two national graduate fellowships to attend graduate school in mathematics, one from the National Science Foundation and one from the National Physical Sciences Consortium sponsored by the National Security Agency.
So, I went on to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, and although I made the cut with only 30 others, I was at a huge disadvantage from the very start. It was an extremely competitive environment, and the professors seemed interested only in the crème de la crème. Most everyone else came from universities like Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge. In fact, I needed to take extra undergraduate classes just to get up to speed. I felt very isolated and these early experiences made me realize that I should have chosen a graduate program that fits me.  At the time, it seemed my first choice should be the best schools, but while I was there, I saw many who started out on a similar difficult path, got frustrated with life and ended up throwing in the proverbial towel altogether. I could have easily been one of them.
During a period of exams, my father passed away. It was a very difficult time, and so I left school for a while. After this necessary break, I went back and finished the master’s program at Berkeley. Then one of the rare congenial math professors at Berkeley, Dr. Bernd Sturmfels, pointed me toward New Mexico State University to go for my Ph.D.
The minute I was in that beautiful desert, I knew it was where I belonged. Although Las Cruces has a very different climate from tropical Guam, the population is largely Latino. It’s a huge support to feel like you belong to a community. The math department became my second home. Whatever I needed, large or small, the professors were there for me: trips to mathematics conferences all over the country and sometimes abroad, summer employment, materials and equipment. I finally finished my degree in August 2004.
Now I am an assistant professor in mathematics at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. I teach classes every day and work on research projects with students and on my own. With a family of my own and the care of my mentally disabled sister, I work hard everyday to balance my personal life and my career. At the moment, I am working on developing a summer research program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. It will be the first such program in mathematics in the Pacific Islands. I hope to start bridging the gap between the Pacific Islands and the continental United States, both culturally and mathematically. Undergraduates will be able to work on current mathematical research topics, which I hope will influence them to pursue a career in mathematics. One of my career goals is to increase opportunities so more minorities seek higher math degrees. I am the first Chamorro woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, but I do not want to be the last!
Being a professor is a demanding job, but the rewards are worth every effort. I am in a highly visible career, where many students of color and women alike see in me that they too can achieve their dreams in the sciences and mathematics. I am a mentor, advisor and a source of support and encouragement to my students. If you love science or mathematics, don’t give up and don’t give in. Don’t give up your natural talents for anybody else and don’t give in to anyone or anything that tells you, “College is not for you. A master’s degree is not for you. A Ph.D. is not for you. ”
What can you do with your math degree? Mathematics will open so many doors of opportunity. It trains you to ask the right questions and gives you the power to find the right answers. This is an important skill in every career and in every science! Start out on the right foot now by getting to know your teachers, and appreciate all that they do. As I reflect on my experiences, I realize it was really their feet that kept those doors open for me all along.