Volume 5, Issue 1
Nuestra Voz - First Person Column
Paying it Forward - A Way of Life
By Judith Arroyo, Ph.D.
Looking back on critical decisions and events in my life, opened doors and windows of opportunities were made crystal clear. I also believe I was set on the right path by those who mentored me in my academic and career endeavors. I was born in El Paso, Texas to a lower-middle class family that dropped off an economic abyss when I was a little girl. We became migrants who moved several times before settling in San Antonio, Texas - a place which was not particularly multicultural-friendly at the time. Although I was smart, studious and scored extremely well on standardized tests, my admission to top-flight academic settings would not have occurred without the coupled benefits of affirmative action and generous mentors.
I owe much to those who struggled to earn access to social, economic, and educational opportunities for people of color. In many ways I was an early poster child for affirmative action because this helped provide financial support for several outstanding, academic settings beginning with prep/high school and ending with graduate school. Being a “woman of a certain age” who lived through the advent of Civil Rights for people of color in Texas, I remember when Mexicans were simply not allowed to dream of, let alone realize, academic and career opportunities. I may have been too young at the time and not quick to realize the forces that helped make me the only Mexican kid in my prep school, the first Mexican woman to be admitted to Smith College or the first secretary admitted to the Clinical program at UCLA. I now realize that those of us who have many family, social and economic concerns, and like me take the circuitous path to an academic career, often need more guidance, support and consideration than mainstream, "traditional" students may need.
Some people are ambivalent about affirmative action; it may be a moot point after the ruling from the Supreme Court comes out on the most recent challenge. But I strongly believe, and data will generally support this view, that racial and ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented in academia, science, and research. We continue to benefit from having our diversity contribute to decisions made about entrance into and progress within educational and research training programs. When I applied to Smith College with a 3.98 GPA from one of the best prep schools in the South, extremely strong SATS and National Merit Scholar status, the admission committee was concerned that a Mexican American student would not be fluent in the English language. At the time, the PSAT and SAT exams were not administered in Spanish; therefore, my ethnic/linguistic background would have worked against me. Fortunately, affirmative action goals eventually overcame the reservations and I was accepted.
After a couple of years, I was forced to drop out due to financial pressures and my father’s deteriorating health. After helping my family through some difficult times, it was realistically too late to return to Smith. I had lost my scholarship and was left on my own in terms of completing my education. I instead entered the work force but continued to take some courses until I finally completed my undergraduate degree - 7 colleges and Universities and 10 years later. I recount all of this because so many of our students have to work full time or multiple jobs to support themselves while paying for tuition. My experiences show that even taking a roundabout route can lead to getting a Ph.D., an academic position, conducting research and having a productive, fulfilling professional life.
When I finally completed my undergraduate degree, I was working as a secretary in the Department of Psychology at UCLA. With my highly unusual, peripatetic academic background, I hesitated to apply to one of the top Clinical Psychology programs. Luckily, mentors, graduate students in the program as well as faculty and staff members, guided me in writing and completing my application. My admission into the Clinical Psychology program at UCLA was my earliest experience with the mandate: "Do not thank me. When you have the chance to help someone else in the same way, do so. That will be my thanks."
As I realized how the confluence of affirmative action and being blessed with active, supportive mentors changed my life, I made minority recruitment, admission and retention my service to the community as it has always been a part of my private, academic and professional life. After having played an active role in minority recruitment and admissions while still a grad student at UCLA, I took a faculty position at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Being a junior faculty provided me with incredible opportunities to "pay it forward" by engaging students in research and mentoring them as they prepared to begin graduate school. At this critical time in the future of diversity in academia, it is even more crucial that faculty continue to open doors for the few who follow in our footsteps. Reaching out to eager undergraduate students, selecting "diamond in the rough" graduate students, and serving multiple faculty search positions can drain your time and energy. It is important to use your time wisely and remember you have to balance these services to the community with research productivity sufficient to earn tenure and promotion. Unfortunately, as a result of being unable to balance these roles, I ended up moving into a full time research position instead of remaining a faculty member at UNM.
The success of this transition was based on the mentoring of a stellar faculty member and colleague, William R. Miller, of Motivational Interviewing fame. He provided me with research opportunities and offered promotions as my skills developed. Working with him taught me the desperate need for more scientists qualified to conduct research in alcohol and drug abuse in racial and ethnic minorities. In the final phase of my career as an academic/scientists/mentor, I am delighted to be able to have my side line "service to the community" become a major component of my current duties. I have worked at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one of the National Institutes of Health, for almost 10 years now.
This is my "dream job". A major part of my duties involved increasing the quality and quantity of minority health and health disparities (MHHD) research. This means I can continue "paying it forward" by helping students, investigators, and their mentors identify programs to help support their training and research. Since the NIH recently realized the disadvantages in being funded experienced by racial and ethnic minorities, there has been a wave of interest in innovative programs to enhance diversity in the biomedical workforce. This means that I am not alone in my endeavor and that many NIH staff are eager to conduct outreach to communities of color, identify promising students and new investigators, help those new to the system negotiate the NIH structure and understand the different funding mechanisms, structure competitive applications, understand summary statements (aka "pink sheets"), pick up the pieces of bruised egos to revise and resubmit applications, and make plans for developing research careers. This is what I have loved to do all my life, and finally it is a primary focus of my job! So, remember, when you get the chance pay it forward!