Life has been a series of unusual coincidences ever since she was a young girl.
Catherine Sandoval’s story is also an unlikely one.
She grew up in a trailer park in East Los Ángeles. When her family outgrew it, they moved to a one-bedroom apartment in the barrio. She attended a school where the principal said all of the students were “mentally retarded.” That was a time when 95 percent of the students were Mexican-American.
“It was precisely that comment that really got parents more involved in the community. It made them angry that their children were basically being told that they weren’t smart,” recalls Sandoval.
The state eventually stepped in and the children in the East Los Ángeles public school system were all tested to see where they stood academically.
From one day to another, Sandoval went from being “mentally retarded” to “mentally gifted.” From the second grade she got moved to the fourth grade.
“It was difficult to succeed at my high school because there were so very few resources for the students who wanted to get ahead and learn and read. I was a voracious reader. I loved to learn but I almost felt like my school couldn’t give me what I needed,” said Sandoval.
At one point, she told her mother she wanted to drop out of high school all-together because “school is boring. It does not challenge me,” said Sandoval.
When she scored high on her PSAT’s, Ivy League’s like Yale University sent her a postcard encouraging her to apply. She had no idea what it was about; after all, nobody in her family had gone on to college and only five students had gone on to attend prestigious universities in her school’s history.
“Luckily, I was offered to attend intermediate school where I got really involved with speech and debate courses,” said Sandoval.
Those courses were life-changing. They exposed Sandoval to the rigors of reading, writing, intense preparation, including traveling for tournaments throughout the county and state. It was the first time in her young life she was exposed to different colleges.
It was also where she first met college recruiters and professors who had attended prestigious universities. While at a debate at USC, a student from the university asked her where she wanted to attend upon graduation.
“I told him I wanted to either go to Harvard or Yale because they seemed to be good universities based on the commercials I saw on television,” said Sandoval.
He told her that as a student at Harvard, “she was just as intelligent as anyone at Harvard or Yale.”
“That’s what really gave me the confidence and encouragement to apply,” said Sandoval.
She was accepted to Yale and it was the beginning of her educational journey that would lead to an astounding professional career trajectory.
In 1984 she became the first Latina Rhodes Scholar where she had the opportunity to study at Oxford University for three years. After earning a master’s degree there, she applied to Stanford Law School and was accepted.
Her dream of becoming a lawyer came to fruition.
In 2011 she was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to serve as the Commissioner at the California Public Utilities Commission—a post that took her to UC Davis last Saturday, where she shared her story at the first Annual Latino STEM Association, Inc. Conference.
“Everything is possible. You guys have the internet, you have the drive, the smarts and everything at your disposal to be successful and more of you should go into the sciences and technology. We need more of you in those fields,” said Sandoval.
Nearly 200 high school and community college students arrived at UC Davis for the all-day conference from as far north as Chico to as far south as Modesto to partake in workshops and learn more about STEM-science, technology, engineering and math.
Conference organizers said they had been planning this event specifically for Latino students since 2012, when they first heard the alarming statistics of the number of Latinos working in the sciences and technology.
“Less than 9 percent of the technological jobs in Silicon Valley and throughout the state are held by Latinos but yet 53 percent of students in the k-12 system are Latino. What does this say about our population? We are largely underrepresented in these careers,” said Arturo Aleman, co-founder of the STEM Conference.
In 2013, Aleman helped arrange a town hall with United Latinos Promoviendo Acción Civíca and UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi. She expressed an interest in having UC Davis become a Hispanic Serving Institute (HIS) by 2018.
It was then, Aleman saw an opportunity.
“We told her, we will help you get there, but you have to do more for Latinos,” said Aleman.
One of Aleman’s colleagues, Chester Ruiz from Silicon Valley met with Margarita Colmenares, former National President of the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers and a Stanford graduate to interchange ideas about what to do to help Chancellor Katehi in her efforts to better serve the Latino population.
The idea for the STEM Conference emerged with the goal of bringing students who are interested in the sciences, technology, engineering or math to the UC Davis campus to introduce them to the resources that are available at the university.
Throughout the day-long conference, students were given training on matriculation and on a wide variety of available careers in the STEM fields. Latino professionals from across Northern California spoke about their careers and answered questions.
The intent was to encourage students to follow their dreams and to know that others “have done it before and that they can do it too,” said Aleman.
For Ruiz, who became a co-founder of the conference, it’s about pushing more Latinos in the direction of technology.
“Working in Silicon Valley has taught me many things, but nothing as shocking as the fact that there are one million eighty-nine technology jobs in Silicon Valley producing over $150 billion dollars a year in revenue with an average salary of $135,000 and less than 4 percent of Latinos hold these posts,” said Ruiz.
“STEM is the driver for the global economy and without Latino participation not only as consumers but innovators and entrepreneurs, then we are going to fall behind. There is a real opportunity here and in California we are blessed to have good government leadership that is opening doors in these fields,” said Ruiz.
One of the main goals of the conference is to fulfill the energy and need of the Latino dreamers and children of immigrants— “a largely unmet need” said Aleman, and to “expose them to UC Davis.”
At this year’s conference companies like Intel, Think Verde, SES Robotics, Aleman & Associates, DreamerLogix and school districts like Washington Unified and Woodland, Twin Rivers and Esparto were in attendance.
“We want to close the technology gap. We want to see more Latinos in the STEM fields and we won’t stop until we see improvement,” said Aleman.