Written By Miriam Ureno Moreno, CSU STEM VISTA Member 2016-2017 Stanislaus State University
When I was really young, I used to follow my grandfather into the fields. Every afternoon after school, we worked in the fields picking apples, walnuts, quince, and jalapenos. During the walnut season, he would hand me a “vara” (long piece of wood) to hit the walnut’s long branches and force the fruit to fall to the ground. Now, as a responsible adult, I ask myself “how could he allow me to climb 40 to 60 feet up when I was just 8 years old?” The answer is very simple, he was somebody who was not afraid to empower me and absolutely trusted my skill to climb in defiance to the adversity that is gravity. Little did I know that this learning experience would stay with me for the rest of my life and influence my VISTA year. My personal philosophy is to empower college and K-12 students to climb the tree of scientific knowledge as they fight the invisible barriers of fear and injustice.
When I was in third grade, I didn’t know how to swim. All of my cousins would have a lot of fun swimming in the river as I observed them from the bank. One hot afternoon, my determination to join them matured. As I stood on the side, I contemplated the fact that I was scared, but I was going to swim regardless of the consequences; I took a deep breath and threw myself into the river. The funny thing was I did know how to float. As a VISTA, I think it is very important to create environments where college students are able to thrive and discover their potential. When I first arrived to my VISTA placement, I was informed about the programs that I was coordinating. One of the first things that I noticed was these programs were going to need a substantial number of volunteers to be successful. I created the Stan State STEM Ambassadors Volunteer Program to give these student volunteers the appropriate environment where they could embrace and enhance their full potential. I remember this particular student who was eager to participate in the program. When I asked in the application to briefly outline why she wanted to become a STEM Ambassador she wrote, “I would like to engage kids to develop their curiosity (and to use it!) and to not be afraid of science related topics because they are not good at it or because it is too hard.” During our first Science Saturday she was always standing in the back of the Ambassadors, as if she was trying to hide. As I organized our second event, I had a meeting with her. I told her that it would be an excellent idea if she directed our next event. Uncertain but excited, she accepted. As the semester unfolded, I saw this student blossom into a dedicated, unafraid, and passionate Ambassador. She submitted a short narrative recently: “I was the Ambassador Teacher explaining why the sky is blue at the Science Saturday called ‘Over the Rainbow.’ I was really nervous but I had a lot of support from the VISTA as well as from the Ambassador Leaders. The kids seemed to enjoy the activities and the presentation, as I heard them use the vocabulary we introduced (particles and atmosphere), and that made me really happy to see them enjoy learning. I hope I can make science lessons that are engaging for kids in my future classroom.” It gives me profound honor that this student was able to face her fears through the volunteer program. She is going to make an awesome teacher someday.
Books have a special place in my heart, because they offer knowledge and adventures but sadly, they are not always accessible to low-income populations. When I was growing up, my family couldn’t afford to buy me clothes and shoes, much less books. The result of this alien relationship with books was failure, since I had to repeat first grade because I couldn’t read. As I learned to master reading, I grew hungry for books and encyclopedias. This insatiable feeling of desiring to learn, but not having access to knowledge influenced how I coordinate the programs serving the K-12 students in our community. Since our programs were mostly serving students surrounding our university, I created the Stan State Junior Scientist Program to reach out to first generation and low-income students. The principal from a school participating in this program wrote this in an email: “our teacher, Mrs. Bergman, said it was a great day! I spoke to one of our students who came back from the university while he was waiting for his family to pick him up. As we waited with him until his grandparents came, he pointed to his certificate and said, ‘This is where I am going!’ This at risk student now has a vision and goal thanks to your program!”
My VISTA experience has been a harmonic transcendence between my background and my personal philosophy. I am truly grateful for this experience and the students it has allowed me to work with.