11:45 a.m., Oct. 14, 2014--Sí se puede. (Believe that you can.)
Inspired by such teachings of his mom, Richard Tapia never gave up on the goals he set for himself.
On Monday, Oct. 13, Tapia, director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education at Rice University, took a crowd of 200 in the University of Delaware’s Roselle Center for the Arts on his “unlikely journey” from the barrios of Los Angeles to the White House as the recipient of the prestigious National Medal of Science.
Along the way, the esteemed mathematician not only shared his own identity crisis growing up as an American-born child of Mexican immigrant parents, but he also underscored the diversity crisis facing U.S. higher education and how universities must do a better job of welcoming and preparing underrepresented minority students, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
In the United States, Tapia said, he was always called Mexican. But when he visited Mexico, he was called a gringo.
“Neither country wanted to claim me, but I’m here,” Tapia said. “My mother said, ‘Be proud of who you are.’”
His mother also stressed “good work habits” and “global excellence.” Tapia and his siblings took her words to heart. Tapia earned his doctorate in mathematics from UCLA; another brother also went to UCLA, while another matriculated at Yale, and a sister went to Stanford.
In other examples of “global excellence,” Tapia’s twin brother, Bobby, has set world drag racing records. And Tapia and his wife, Jean, own a 1970 Chevelle, named “Heavy Metal,” which has been a three-time national champ at classic car shows.
Concerns about underrepresentation
“Why worry about underrepresentation?” Tapia asked. “For years, the U.S. has been the envy of the scientific world. Will historians write about the rise and the fall of the U.S.?”
Today in the United States, the Hispanic population is increasing by 4 percent per decade, while the white population is decreasing by 4 percent each decade. The extreme growth in the Hispanic population is coupled with another issue: “We drop out of school,” Tapia said.
He quoted a study that revealed that 41 percent of 16- to 19-year-old Hispanics in New York City drop out of high school. In Houston, Tapia said, 60 percent of Hispanic males drop out of school.
Additionally, students of color strongly avoid STEM, Tapia said, which is not good news for the future U.S. as a high-tech powerhouse. Less than 2 percent of faculty in STEM fields are underrepresented minorities. Those who do earn doctorates typically pursue fields such as sociology, political science and psychology.
“We tend not to train in the areas where there are jobs,” Tapia said.
Tapia said faculty should be blamed for not doing enough toward the problem and for lowering their expectations for underrepresented minority students. He spoke of the need to prevent the “loss of the precious few” by putting strong mentoring and support programs in place to assist minority STEM students in Tier 1 schools versus placing them in a “sink or swim” culture.
Tapia said that public flagship universities such as UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley, which have few minority professors, should have their funding cut because they do not reflect the state’s population — and students need to see themselves in their professors.
Ultimately, “you have to really want it,” Tapia said, of succeeding in STEM.
Tapia says his ultimate achievement was when President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of Science in 2011. Tapia said, “I closed my eyes and said ‘thank you, Mom, for teaching me global excellence.’”