From Puerto Rico to the contiguous United States: Sahid's Journey in Higher Education

Sahid grew up in Cabo Rojo on the west coast of Puerto Rico and went to the best private schools in the region. From kindergarten through high school her classes were always taught in English (with the exception of Spanish classes). Her father was an engineer and similarly, her classmates’ parents also worked as engineers, doctors, and lawyers. As a student with strong math and science skills Sahid was encouraged to follow in her father’s footsteps. Her existence in this sheltered upper-class bubble normalized the privilege she experienced and kept her apart from the existence of students who came up through the public school system. This started to change when Sahid began to attend the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, a public university with a strong engineering program. Classes were often taught in Spanish but there were some instructors who only taught in English or spoke Spanish but used textbooks written in English. Sahid easily alternated between languages and excelled in her college coursework due to the foundation she received through her private school education. For the first time, Sahid had classmates who came from less privileged backgrounds who struggled to learn and translate in classes that heavily utilized English. 

Her time in college exposed her to students who came from less affluent backgrounds but didn’t make a particularly impactful impression on her world view or sense of self. This all changed when Sahid moved to Illinois to pursue a graduate degree in environmental engineering. Now, Sahid was the student who was struggling to keep up and felt underprepared based on her background. In Puerto Rico, Sahid is considered White and treated with the privileges ascribed to those with light skin tones. In contrast, as a Puerto Rican in Illinois, she did not look like the other people in her graduate program.  People saw her as different and she was treated as an outsider within the program. 

When assigned group work, she felt like she couldn’t keep up with the other students. The one time she tried using office hours, the professor was condescending and dismissive; he judged her for not understanding the material already and so she stopped asking for help. This environment left her depressed during her first year of graduate school: she felt like she didn’t belong and lost some of her motivation to continue toward becoming an engineer.  

While Sahid was experiencing this loss of privilege in her classes, her parents were also losing privileges back home. After the recession, her parents’ financial situation continued to worsen until it bottomed out the year Sahid started school in Illinois. That year her dad lost his company, her parents lost her childhood home, and all sense of financial stability disappeared. This loss was only exacerbated  when Sahid’s grandma died and she couldn’t afford to go back home for the services. In high school Sahid had believed the myth of meritocracy and judged those who had less. Now her parents were using government assistance and she saw the reality: anyone can fall on hard times.  

Despite these challenges, Sahid persisted to complete her M.S. in Environmental Engineering and move forward to begin the PhD coursework. In her first term she decided to enroll in an elective that actually sounded fun; a class designed to provide the skills for engineering students to teach kids about engineering. In this class engineering doctoral students were required to turn their research into middle school lesson plans. They then had to put their plans into practice teaching  public school students in the area. This experience changed the trajectory of her career path. Sahid loved being able to teach students about engineering and create opportunities for them to engage with a traditionally inaccessible field. She finally felt that she had found a way to make a difference in the world, instead of doing obscure research that would likely just sit dusty on a shelf.

With renewed zeal Sahid began to study how inequities in communities can be exacerbated by school funding pipelines that limit the education of disadvantaged students. She was able to clearly identify the systems that provided her with the educational opportunities she had access to in Puerto Rico and the differences that her peers grew up with. Despite Puerto Rico’s status as a colonized and oppressed nation, Sahid still grew up with believing the dominant narrative: that racism isn’t present on the island and that any systemic oppression is just coincidence. As a former engineering student who had been unaware of the power structures in play throughout her schooling, Sahid realized the importance of teaching engineering students about social justice. This transformative experience prompted Sahid to switch out of her PhD program in engineering and pursue a degree in education instead. 

Sahid initially planned to become a school teacher but after graduating with her degree in education an engineering outreach position opened up and, with the encouragement of a mentor, she applied and ultimately accepted this job. She was excited to empower women in STEM and as outreach coordinator, Sahid ran a summer camp for girls in high school to get them excited about engineering. She also inherited a statewide competition that included exams which awarded top scorers with scholarships into the College of Engineering. Frustratingly, due to the design of the competition, privileged students rose to the top and the scholarships were won by white men from wealthy suburban neighborhoods. Sahid valued outreach to bring people into Engineering who might not otherwise have access to that career path. This value stood in stark opposition to this competition that she was expected to run. 

Eventually, Sahid was able to convince her supervisor that they should refocus their efforts away from the competition and they began a partnership with a Chicago based nonprofit (ChiS&E). ChiS&E wanted to support Sahid in building programming and curriculum that Chicago inner city and underprivileged middle school students could access for free. Sahid recruited engineering students to volunteer on the weekend and built a curriculum for 6th graders. Unfortunately those volunteers matched the demographics of a typical engineering program--white and privileged--not the demographics of the students they were serving. Knowing this was a problem, Sahid teamed up with the service learning department and created a yearlong class to teach engineering students about the inequities that existed in Chicago; issues of access related to race and identity. They started the first term by interrogating the concepts of identity and race. They read and discussed The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol as well as "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity by Beverly Daniel Tatum. The second semester focused on looking specifically at the implications of social justice related to engineering. They examined ideas like what happens when engineering goes wrong, what happens when engineers don’t communicate with the community they are serving, who engineers are, and the problems that can arise with programs like Engineers Without Borders.Through this course students were able to start moving away from a “white saviour” mentality to become more aware of the power structures that impact the opportunities and resources that people can access. 

Sahid Rosado Lausell (she/her) continues to expand access to engineering programs in her current role as the Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives Coordinator for the College of Engineering at Oregon State University. She can be reached at Sahid.Rosado@oregonstate.edu.

Written from interview by OWHE Director of Education Shannon Shivers.

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