With Hispanic people constituting 20 percent of the United States (US) population, the fact that they make up only 5 percent of employees in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is concerning. STEM in the US has historically been dominated by white males — something that organizations are increasingly trying to change. There has been a widespread push to increase the number of women in STEM, with groups such as Berkeley High School’s (BHS) very own STEMinists Club pioneering that change.
A newer group at BHS is also working to give underrepresented students in STEM key opportunities to get involved in the field: the Hispanic Engineers and Scientists (HES) Club.
The BHS HES Club is a junior chapter, as HES is a national club with chapters at many universities — including UC Berkeley. During the 2018-19 school year, the UC Berkeley chapter connected with BHS, scouting and presenting to Spanish-speaking students about starting a high school chapter. This took place during sophomore year for both Noam Chocron, a senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), and Xochitl Gonzales, a senior in Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS).
Chocron joined the club that year. However, when he returned to BHS for his junior year after a semester abroad, the club was no longer active. Even John Villavicencio, BHS Director of Student Activities, did not have information on the club or where it went.
Chocron discovered that the previous leaders had graduated and no student had taken the initiative to continue the club in the new school year. Chocron became that student. He assumed the position of president, contacted previous members to gage interest, and recruited new members.
During this time, Gonzales, who was on the email list from the UC Berkeley presentation the previous year, was contacted. Chocron and Gonzales decided to work together as co-presidents to restart the club. By the second semester, they had a solid group of 11 members.
Chocron’s motivation to continue HES Club came from a personal place. “As a Latino, I was given the choice to live in a white European family. I learned a lot about engineering and technological advances because of my family and what they do for work.” He recognized that his experience was not universal, or even typical, for most Latinx students. Chocron described a prevalent issue saying, “A lot of the Latinx community are not exposed to the STEM fields, and are sometimes stereotyped as not capable of accomplishing any goals within that field.”
Chocron explained how he wanted to give others the experience he went through himself. “You can be a bioengineer, an aerospace tester, or anything really, so I want the Latinx community to be exposed to that and be part of it, and not be that small percentage,” he said.
BHS HES continues this year, though it is more difficult to operate virtually. “It just hasn’t been the same.” Gonzales said. “Some people just don’t show up. And the club fair wasn’t as we had expected — there wasn’t a great turnout. So it’s been hard to reach out to other students.” Despite these challenges, HES meets every Thursday at 2:30 PM.
The BHS HES Club often connects with the UC Berkeley chapter. BHS HES has already had its first event of the year: a workshop on UC applications hosted by Cal’s HES Club. The BHS members are all familiar with the Cal HES board members, and have had opportunities to learn from them in formal settings like workshops, as well as more casual settings, such as a social at a boba shop last year.
As this year’s program expands, Chocron and Gonzales aim to set up a mentorship program with consistent pairings. They also plan to focus on career options that align with member interests, while building community within the group.
Gonzales said, “Our main focus is to prepare and guide Spanish speaking students to be strong applicants to college and to give them mentorship in regards to knowing what they should expect from the STEM careers they’re interested in.” The club maintains a casual atmosphere, rather than being another strictly academic Zoom call after a long school day.
Chocron and Gonzales believe that the club has a lot to offer to students– even they have felt its effects. Chocron said, “I’ve gotten a lot of insight on what I want to do in the future because of the UC Berkeley members that [helped] me realize what … I have to do to succeed in my field.”