My first computer science class at Harvard was a culture shock. Walking into CS20: Discrete Math in Computer Science, a class with 200+ people, I immediately felt alienated as a woman of color. The computer science department faculty didn’t look like me, and the students were mostly White and male. As a Latina woman in my 4-inch heeled boots, gold hoops, slicked ponytail, and dress, I felt completely out of place.
Many students in class had years of coding experience and had attended STEM-focused, well-resourced high schools. They navigated the CS20 course content with ease. Coming from a Texas public school of almost 4,000 students that was more than half Hispanic/Latino, I felt isolated and unsupported in classes with little diversity. I was confronting impostor syndrome like never before.
As an activist for gender equality, I was familiar with the exclusive nature of STEM, but I never experienced it like this. However, I soon realized that beauty and `confidence — core values for Venezuelan women — could be used to overcome obstacles in my STEM classes and at Harvard.
My mother’s red lipstick, gold hoops, and 4-inch heels demand respect. Her ability to command a room, even as she radiates kindness and love, always inspires me. Her internal sense of self worth and self love is impermeable. She channels this in every room she enters. As an immigrant woman in Texas, her power moves mountains. And for me, it means everything.
On a Thursday evening phone call, my mother told me, “Eres una guerrera, una guerrera Venezolana. Eres intocable y poderosa. Nunca lo olvides.” This translates to: “You are a warrior, a Venezuelan warrior. You are powerful and untouchable. Never forget that.”
In male-dominated spaces in Venezuelan culture, confidence and strength are tools through which women can empower themselves to become leaders. Beauty refers to inner determination and ambition, a high sense of self-worth and self-respect, and love and kindness toward others, which all serve as tools with which one can lead, inspire, and succeed. Beauty becomes political as women demand reverence in spaces historically led and dominated by men. Many Venezuelan women pursue careers in engineering and mathematics, leading in both the STEM world and in the communities to which they belong.
I realized the confidence and self-love of my mother – and of other women of color in my life – were unstoppable forces in each room that they entered. They utilized beauty as a form of garnering respect, believing in themselves, and showing up as their most authentic selves, regardless of what others believed.
I showed up as her. I showed up as the Latina from Texas – hoops, makeup, everything, confident in who she is, unstoppable in pursuing her dreams, and unapologetic in making mistakes, learning, and growing.
Head held high, I remembered my mother’s words and where I came from.
Channeling the Venezuelan women who came before me, and who continue to carve spaces for themselves in STEM and in the world, I enter my classes with a new perspective, leading conversations on class content, and unapologetically asking questions. My expressions of femininity, culture, and identity as a Latina are not mutually exclusive with studying STEM. I can wear hoops, pink eyeshadow, and high heels, while latex-ing psets, discussing proofs by strong induction, and dissecting Cantor’s diagonal argument.
After speaking with other Latina and BIPOC women in STEM, it’s clear that my feelings of isolation, frustration over lack of support, and impostor syndrome were universal, extending beyond the walls of Harvard. We are not alone.
Women utilize STEM to change the communities to which they belong. We are multifaceted and multidimensional. Our unique perspectives better the STEM fields with which we engage, challenging and inspiring those around us. Holding on to the pieces of our identity that empower and move us is critical in assuaging impostor syndrome and other obstacles.
As my mother says: You are a warrior, never forget that.
The original artwork for this article was created by Harvard College student Duncan Glew for the exclusive use of the HPR.