VISTA Spotlight – Emily Liptow

IMG_8656.JPGName: Emily Liptow

Host Site: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education

Alma Mater: The Ohio State University

Major: Industrial and Systems Engineering

Background: Prior to starting my AmeriCorps journey, I studied Industrial and Systems Engineering at (The) Ohio State University. Yes, the “The” is actually a part of our school name, but I feel pretentious writing that. At OSU, I was very involved in social justice initiatives and student life, which really shaped my college experience and motivated me to pursue opportunities like AmeriCorps.

My work with the CSU STEM VISTA has prompted me to reflect on my own education and what led me to pursue an engineering degree. I was fortunate to attend a private all-girls high school that fostered my intellectual curiosity, encouraged me to take risks, and inspired me to make an impact in the world. It was during this high school experience, that I was exposed more formally to the fields of engineering and computer science and encouraged to explore them in college. The small class sizes, passionate teachers, supportive peer networks, and rich out-of-classroom experiences played a huge role in my success as an engineering student and my strong commitment social justice.

I realize the privilege of my upbringing and educational experiences. Without this exposure and support from my teachers, parents and peers, I likely would not have realized my potential as an engineer, college student, or citizen.

IMG_8356.JPGAh-ha moment: One of my ah-ha moments this year has been around meritocracy and its negative impact on our education system. Meritocracy is a system that assigns value and power to individuals on the basis of their ability. It operates under the assumption that there exists a level playing field, that everyone is equal and if you work hard to improve your abilities, you can advance in the system. Our education system is driven by a meritocracy. Student success and admission criteria are evaluated on rigid grades and tests. This system identifies top students are those who know how to answer these specific test questions. There is no consideration of skills that cannot be measured by these tests (i.e. leadership, citizenship, communication, collaboration, etc.). Nor is there any consideration of the fact that we do not have a level playing field in our society.

In effort to learn more about meritocracy, I hosted a book circle for faculty and staff at Cal Poly on “Tyranny of the Meritocracy” by Lani Guinier, a Harvard Law Professor. Guinier exposes how our current system– which is driven almost solely by standardized testing– is designed to value highly individualized and elite merit, while leaving behind students with great potential to be critical thinkers, active citizens, and publicly spirited leaders. Facilitating discussions around this book have helped me understand the meritocracy, but it has brought up a lot of questions for me as well. What does our society value? What does it mean to be educated? What is the purpose of higher education? What does it mean to be an engaged citizen in our country?

Lessons Learned: One of the important lessons I’ve learned is that there is so much work Emily.jpgto do in regards to STEM equity, much more than I can do alone. The problems that we seek to address through the CSU STEM VISTA program are large and complex. They originate from historical and present day issues of racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, and much more.  They are pervasive in just about all aspects of our society including academia, K-12 education, government, and industry.

This is a lot to process and understand! At many points throughout this past year, I have become overwhelmed with the realization of the depth and complexity of social justice. I have experienced periods of doubt, sadness, and anger; questioning why I think I can make a difference. It is very easy to become cynical and see such social justice work as impossible.

But, I’ve come to realize that such doubt, sadness, or anger is unproductive for my personal well-being and for addressing these issues overall. The very act of believing in change and in social justice is so important for making a difference.

This realization has helped re-inspire and motivate me, and it is something that I must continually remind myself of.  When I feel that doubt creeping up, I look to my coworkers at Cal Poly, local and global activists, and of course my VISTA cohort to remind me why we do this social justice work. Now, more than ever, we must continue to fight for the rights and wellbeing of all Americans.

Why I serve (for a second year): I 14495358_10153960401856381_5258013136660272215_n.jpgam well underway with my second year serving with the CSU STEM VISTA program at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, and there are a lot of reasons why I continue to serve with AmeriCorps.  

I serve because apathy to issues of racism, poverty, sexism, transphobia, and xenophobia perpetuates them. I serve to fight for everyone’s right to pursue an education. I serve to empower the most vulnerable communities in our country. I serve because the fight for justice never ends.

AmeriCorps has empowered me to make an impact on these issues (albeit it feels very small sometimes), and I feel privileged to be able to do this work.

In community and solidarity,



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