Anastasia Chavez: ‘This is where I want to be’

female student

UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Anastasia Chavez (Photo by Gretchen Kell)

If it weren’t for encouragement from a San Francisco State University adviser, UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Anastasia Chavez might not have pursued a career in math. No one had told her until then, when she was seeking help transferring from Santa Rosa Junior College, that “math is what you should be doing,” she said, despite how much she enjoyed, excelled at and thought about math problems.

Chavez became the first in her family to get a college degree – a B.S. in applied math from San Francisco State – and then headed back to San Francisco State for her master’s degree, all while marrying and starting a family, which now includes two young daughters. With the help of scholarships and a “pretty amazing mentor,” she said, she juggled home and school life, finished her master’s thesis and successfully applied to UC Berkeley for her Ph.D.

Upon arriving at UC Berkeley, Chavez encountered a much less diverse math department than she’d known in San Francisco – of the 161 Ph.D. students, 30 are women, three are African American, six are Chicano/Latino and two are Native American/Alaska Native – and struggled with self-esteem and isolation. It was difficult to find study partners and form friendships. “My first year,” she said, “all the thoughts I’d long had in my mind were amplified – ‘You don’t belong here.’ ‘People like you don’t get here.’ ‘You being here was a favor or a mistake.'”

Now a third-year Ph.D. student in pure math, 32-year-old Chavez said, “It did get a lot better, and part of it was I have some resilience. This is where I want to be, and I have the ambition to be a professor and a researcher at a university. When I’m teaching in a classroom, and I see in students’ faces when a light bulb goes on and they learn something new, I know that’s what I’m really here for.”

She wonders, though, whether she should abandon dreams of teaching at a top-tier university and instead work at a smaller school with more diversity. She added that it’s also hard to ignore the emails that she and her Ph.D. classmates get from private companies offering large salaries.

The California Alliance offers hope, she said, that underrepresented minority Ph.D. students in the sciences and engineering will get more support as they contemplate becoming professors at the nation’s best research institutions.

“Everyone deserves access to someone who recognizes them, who says, ‘There are opportunities out there for you, and these are the things you need to do to get there,’” Chavez said. “Somebody willing to take a little time to open eyes wider.”