Illustration depicting a male- and Latino-presenting individual wearing traditional Mexican regalia sitting at a laptop with the Greek character Omega and the word "Up" written on it.

OPINION: Education, Mentorship Key Part of Getting Latinx Youth Excited About STEM

by Rafa Díaz

My story is one that isn’t often heard in the tech world. I grew up in Huayacocotla, a small Indigenous town in the mountains in Mexico. When I was 5, my mother — who was an elementary school teacher — moved me and my three sisters to La Guerrero, one of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in Mexico City. Resources were scarce, and kids were easy targets for violence and many other social problems. 

Thankfully, education was a force that shielded me from violence and, eventually, allowed me to flourish. Growing up, I was always interested in math, and my passion led me to multiple gold medals in Mathematical Olympiads in school.

Despite the barriers facing me, I was able to overcome challenges like racism, lack of knowledge about the opportunities available to me, and my own imposter syndrome. But I didn’t overcome these challenges alone. There are many factors that led me to where I am today — a software engineer at Google working on products like Google Meet — including mentors, access to a good education, and my love of math and problem-solving. I’m here today thanks to mi comunidad. 

Today, I live in Rainier Beach and I’m sure there are many kids in the area who might be passionate about learning more about STEM education and the world of technology. Although I didn’t grow up here, I feel a sense of duty to give back to my community and inspire the next generation of engineers and problem solvers.

From my personal experiences, there are a few key barriers that I’ve focused on breaking down to open up opportunities to those who may not typically have access.

Bringing Computer Science Education to Neighborhoods of Color

Through one of my workplaces, I had the opportunity to teach computer science classes at a local high school. I noticed that few students of color were enrolled in the program. 

So, I am currently working on a new program in Burien for Para Los Niños that will teach a computer science curriculum to kids in Spanish using the educational platform omegaUp, which is also used by hundreds of schools and the Olympiads in Informatics in Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. Because Burien has a large Latinx population, I see this as a way to provide opportunities to kids that might not otherwise consider a career in tech a possibility. Last summer, I was honored to be one of the artists chosen to paint a public mural in Burien at the Para Los Niños building. I took that opportunity to depict four inspiring young Latinas who participated in the European Girls’ Olympiad in Informatics (EGOI), the first international programming competition for girls. I am inspired by their grit and teamwork and hope they can inspire other young Latinx future programmers. 

I believe that STEM education in elementary, middle, and high school are key. These years are critical for kids to develop interests in science, technology, engineering, and math.

There are many organizations that are currently providing STEM educational opportunities to kids around Seattle — including many that I have volunteered for or otherwise supported, such as Geeking Out Kids of Color (GoKiC), Rainier Scholars, and Para Los Niños. I’m especially proud that Google focuses on supporting underrepresented student STEM organizations like Technology Access Foundation, Ada Developers Academy, and the Rainier Scholars program.

Mentorship Is Key in Opening Young People’s Eyes to Possibilities

My mother was pivotal in my pathway to success. Even though we didn’t have a television growing up, we always had books to read because she was a teacher and education was important to her. I consider my mother one of my biggest mentors. There are many others who guided me along the way and encouraged me to keep feeding my interest in math.

They say representation matters, and this rings true for me. It’s important that young people see their future in others, especially mentors, and that People of Color in positions of opportunity open themselves up to mentoring other People of Color. Part of the way I try to drive more representation is by creating artwork showing People of Color in tech because I feel that I don’t see this topic depicted in other mediums like movies or TV shows. It is a dream of mine to someday become a teacher, so I can inspire young people and show them that they can pursue careers in STEM, just like I did.

Build a Community Where People Feel Included

For young people and particularly young People of Color, community is incredibly important when it comes to encouraging early interests in STEM. 

When I was in elementary school, I was part of a group that came together and played chess. In middle school, I was part of a community that was interested in math, and we would get together on Saturdays and work on problems. Schools should work to harbor these safe spaces where kids feel like they can pursue their passions together.

These are some ways the community can come together to support the futures of young people wanting to pursue interests in STEM. One of my biggest lessons is that we all can give back and help pave the way for new, diverse voices. I’ve tried to do that throughout my work, and I’m grateful to have been supported wholeheartedly. I hope everyone continues to give back, in whatever way makes sense, and encourages young people to pursue their dreams.

Headshot depicting Rafa Díaz

Rafa Díaz is a Google software engineer with a passion for education and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the Latinx community. In his artwork, Rafa highlights issues like social justice, anti-racism, and DE&I. He lives in Rainier Beach.

📸 Featured Image: ‘Aguila que programa’ by Rafa Díaz (also known as rcxr). Illustration courtesy of Rafa Díaz.

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