Hello, my name is Karen Gonzalez, I am a senior studying biomedical engineer with a mechanical emphasis. My parents are both immigrants from Mexico who met each other while they were working as seamsters. I was born in LA and grew up in Norwalk, CA. As a first-generation student, the transition from high school to college was difficult, but allowed me to learn about myself and grow as a person.
An opportunity I’m glad I took advantage of before starting the fall semester at USC was attending the Viterbi Summer Institute (VSI). It was a four-week program for incoming Viterbi students from underrepresented backgrounds to ease the transition from high school to college. VSI allowed me to meet other minority students and form a close group of friends that has continued to provide support throughout my college journey.
Even after attending the program, my first semester was definitely the hardest for me socially and academically. Outside of the friendships I made during VSI, I didn’t make any strong connections with anyone in my classes my first semester. I didn’t feel as though I could relate to some of my peers or resonate with their senses of humor. People in my classes seemed to have groups formed in class, but I always felt like I was at the edge of the conversation. One conversation that stands out to me was about our parent’s careers. Everyone’s parents were doctors, engineers, or lawyers. As each person shared their parents’ careers, they were met with praise, questions, and comments. When they asked me about my parents, I proudly told them that they were seamsters, but they didn’t say anything, there was only silence and gentle nods. I am proud of my parents; they left behind everything in Mexico to work in the US in hopes of a better life for themselves and their family, but I felt as though they didn’t understand or appreciate that.
”As a VSI RA and a mentor for the center for engineering diversity, I always remind my mentees that they belong at USC. I tell them that they have more hurdles to overcome than many of their peers but that they should not be discouraged. It’s okay to stumble, trip, or fail as long as you learn from it, get up, and keep going.
Like many, it was my first time living away from home. Although I lived nearby, there would still be days where I felt lonely since I grew up with parents or siblings to keep me company. Initially, I felt uncomfortable and out of place eating alone in a dining hall or in a library, but I learned to enjoy my own company and time to myself. I would listen to music as I took in the scenery of the brick architecture, walking among the swarm of students going from class to class. I felt guilty because although my family missed me and I wanted to go home, I was too anxious about my workload. I couldn’t focus at home and felt that I would fall behind. It was a difficult semester, but I was proud that I finished and decided to set goals for myself and learn from my first semester.
My second semester I was determined to improve my GPA and become more involved on campus. I wanted to get involved in undergraduate research at USC after my summer experience to see if it could be a potential career path. I reached out to various professors through email and sent my resume. I only got one response from a professor who told me that I should focus on improving my GPA before trying to get involved in a lab. I knew that I didn’t have the best GPA, but it was above a 3.0 and I had struggled to earn it. I had given all my effort and still didn’t have a GPA good enough for a professor to consider me. I felt insecure and discouraged so I stopped emailing professors.
The best decision I made my second semester was becoming involved in SHPE, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. I began attending their general body meetings, going to study nights and talking to more people, and attending the outreach and external relations committees. I was able to form friendships and a sense of community for the first time since I had been at USC. The upperclassmen genuinely wanted to see me succeed and grow and shared their similar experiences and struggles. SHPE became my familia, my home away from home. SHPE hosted a research fair and invited different professors to the event. I had regained the confidence to explore research and met Professor Zavaleta. I was interested in her research and asked if I could begin working in her lab over the summer. Today, I am proud to be the Treasurer of SHPE, a two time VSI Resident Assistant (RA), and a researcher in the Zavaleta lab. My biggest regret my first semester was being too intimidated to become involved in clubs and too scared to ask for help. I learned to stop comparing myself to others and focused on my personal goals. I’m glad I overcame my insecurity and got out of my comfort zone since I have been able to grow as a student and leader. As a VSI RA and a mentor for the center for engineering diversity, I always remind my mentees that they belong at USC. I tell them that they have more hurdles to overcome than many of their peers but that they should not be discouraged. It’s okay to stumble, trip, or fail as long as you learn from it, get up, and keep going.