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Kim’s Declassified POC Grad School Survival Guide

This piece is for first-generation graduate students; for the first of anything. It’s for the grad students that may be questioning their position in higher education, as I often have, and continue to do so. It’s for the grad students with responsibilities beyond school. This is for the grad students that have failed a homework assignment, or exam, or class and went home to cry about it by themselves because they knew their family would not understand the pain of feeling like a failure; but still manage to get themselves together to study BECAUSE MAMA AIN’T RAISE NO B*#@$. For the grad students that may be struggling to learn something new in grad school because imposter syndrome has slowly been slipping in and causing you to question your progress. This all is for you, and here I present to you my experiences on how to overcome some challenges you may be facing and give you advice on how to keep going. 

Research in Material Science and Engineering

My name is Kimberly Krystal Zepeda and I’m one of the very few Mexican-American women in the doctoral program of Material Science and Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Material Science. My work is in understanding the underlying mechanisms that lead alloys to fracture at a wide range of temperatures. While metals are composed of one single type of metal, alloys are a combination of metals. You can already imagine why investigating fracture may be important, because if we know what causes a material to fracture, we have a better chance of being able to prevent it from fracturing which can lead to far worse damages. The experiments I do are at the nanoscale (a nanometer is about 1/400 the thickness of your nail). A sample experiment is seen in Figure 1. We placed a probe on the surface of a pillar (fig. 1.a) and pushed it into the pillar; as the probe travels deeper into the pillar (x-axis), more load/weight is applied to the pillar (y-axis) until the pillar breaks (fig. 1.b) The maximum load at pillar fracture is used to calculate a material constant known as fracture toughness (Kc). Kc is an important value that informs how much load a material can withstand before it fractures; the higher the Kc value a material has, the more difficult it is to break. 

Figure 1: Fracture of Single Crystal Silicon (Si) via Micro-Pillar Splitting at room temperature. a) image of Si pillar pre-fracture b) fractured Si pillar 
Figure 1: Fracture of Single Crystal Silicon (Si) Via Micro-Pillar Splitting at Room Temperature; a) Image of Si pillar pre-fracture b); Fractured Si pillar 

Figure 2: Comparison of Metals and Alloys Maximum Load to Induce Fracture. Material A/B has a lower load compared to the 50A/50B alloy. 

Generally, when we compare Kc values between alloys and metals, alloys are known to have a higher Kc value (Figure 2). Alloys can be made from a variety of different types of metals and when a specific group of metals are joined together, the alloy displays amazing attributes. For example, some alloys are known to be stable at temperatures above 300°C and withstand large loads, making them ideal materials in fields like aerospace, engineering, and the medical field.

“Sometimes Science is more Art than Science.” 1

I enjoy this statement from Rick and Morty because it connects well with my background. Despite being a grad student in material science, I started my academic journey at a community college aspiring to become a fashion major. However, due to some financial difficulties, that dream fell short. Still, I had found a passion for chemistry and when I transferred to California State University Fullerton, a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), I declared myself a chemistry major. Throughout my undergraduate career, my artistic view had stuck with me and helped me as I progressed through higher education. From being able to see patterns in my coursework to, now, seeing patterns between different fields of study.

Now, as a graduate student in a Research 1 (R1) predominantly White institution (PWI), I’ve reflected on my experiences coming from an undergraduate HSI. As a first-generation college student, Mexican-American, queer, cis-woman, from a low-income household; attending a HSI was truly a gift. During the first year of my transfer I had developed a sense of belonging within clubs, such as Hermanas Unidas and Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, that I had never experienced before. This sense of belonging taught me that I held a lot of misconceptions on when certain intersectional identities could be used. Intersectional identities (InId) are factors that make you who you are, identities such as: first-generation student, scientist, queer, Mexican-American, cis-woman, spiritual, graduate student, Taurus, dark humorist, artist, leader, scholar, etc.

My misconception was that I could only rely on certain intersectional identities in one environment, but not in another. In other words, I was switching between using different InId; also termed code-switching. Code-switching is defined as the method of altering your speech, mannerisms, attire, etc, to fit better into an environment. A visual representation can be seen in Figure 3. Prior to entering a HSI, I had used code-switching to survive in science-based environments. I felt like I needed to hide my Hispanic and queer identities because those weren’t intersectional identities that were commonly seen in such places. Below, my experiences are provided to you in a storytelling art form….

Figure 3: Code Switching Between Different Intersectional Identities. (left) Individuals contain a variety of intersectional identities that are expressed in different environments; (right) intersectional identities expressed in different environments are distinguished by a single color.

Figure 3: Code-Switching Between Different Intersectional Identities. (left) Individuals contain a variety of intersectional identities that are expressed in different environments; (right) intersectional identities expressed in different environments are distinguished by a single color.

It’s 5 and dinner needs to be made. “KIMBBBEERRRRLLYYYYY!” My mom asks me to help cook and I grumble under my breath, “MANDE MOM.” It’s finals week. I’m tired and I have been studying since 8am, trying to understand how to code up multi-step integrals using Matlab. Even so, I know this is the only time I get to spend with my mom, so I agree to help. She puts on old Mexican classics– playing in the background Tumba Falsa de Los Tigres del Norte– and we sing “Cuando te fuisssttteeeee” at the top of our lungs, moving our hips side-to-side. “Okay, que ago?” I ask my mom. “Ponte a lavar los platos y corta la cebollas y cilantro,” she tells me. I immediately get to work; I know when it comes to cooking my mom is the captain and I am only second in command. 

It’s 6am, way too early to be awake. I am tired because I was up late last night trying to study for a quiz. I’m walking into work, relying on pure, body memory. I could only wish to sleep in, but I need the money to purchase school books and pay household bills. I clock in and swiftly greet my co-workers, “Hola, como estas?” The conversations are never long. I prioritize work over conversing with my co-workers. This makes my managers very happy, but there’s a disconnect between me and my co-workers. 

I’m taking an analytical chemistry lab; we start a new lab today and I have to connect with another student. I don’t usually talk to my classmates, I tend to keep to myself in class in order to focus on learning the subject. Still, I find a partner and immediately jump into the assignment. Without introducing myself, I go straight into dividing the work and asking them what portion they would like to do. “Let me know if you need any help.” I tell them, and I start working on my portion of the work. The pressure of making sure my work is correct overcomes me. I do the lab in silence, but I make sure to help my lab partner to make sure I get a good grade. I think to myself “I can’t fail, what is the point of school, if I fail.” 

At home, I was Mexican-American; I was a helper; I was the goofy, loving older sister that cared for her siblings. At work, I was the Mexican-American college girl that stuck to herself, not friendly, and only focused on getting her work done; in essence, I was unapproachable. And at school, because I saw such a small representation of Mexican-Americans from low-income households, I decided it was best to just hide myself away and solely focus on getting through my courses. While this allowed me to survive in each environment, I ultimately ended up feeling like I lacked something within myself.

From my experience, code-switching had led me to believe that I could only exist as a certain person in an environment, but that idea of who I could be in those environments was entirely up to me. Once I had transferred into my HSI undergrad school, I began to connect with a variety of Hispanics that were also in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. These connections helped me understand that I didn’t have to hide a piece of myself in school nor anywhere else. And with the support of the communities I was a part of, I gathered the courage to leave code-switching behind and start code-meshing. Code-meshing is when you start combining parts of different codes into other codes and begin entering spaces as your whole authentic self; a representation is in Figure 4. 

To code-mesh, I started by introducing some STEM experiences at home, like doing fun safe experiments, with my siblings. This allowed my family to see a part of me that they had not seen before. At work, I began conversing with my co-workers and sharing my college stories with them; I began to develop friendships and not feel isolated. For school, I began to express my Mexican culture in what I wore, which led to me making friends to study and hang out with. Now, as a graduate student in a PWI, I continue to code-mesh and ensure I arrive into a space as my whole authentic self. I’ve learned that being my authentic self, not hiding who I am or where I come from, has helped me find the people that I best connect with and create those connections to survive graduate school. Some of my experiences are presented to you below.

Figure 4: Code Mixing. (left) Individuals contain a variety of intersectional identities that are expressed in different environments (right) code meshing of intersectional identities heavily used in one environment playing a role in a different environment.

Figure 4: Code-Meshing. (left) Individuals contain a variety of intersectional identities that are expressed in different environments (right) code-meshing of intersectional identities heavily used in one environment playing a role in a different environment. 
Code- Mesh: Home

Having to move from California to Minnesota, I no longer had my family to call home. So, I needed to find a new home for myself. Having looked around and read through a\ll of the affinity groups located on campus, I found Platicas! Platicas!, a group of LatinX individuals that meet up every Tuesday, to well, to platicar. We have talked about the alienation and misunderstanding we’ve felt as Latinx individuals in a PWI. There is no greater feeling than someone asking me, “Y como te sientes?” Being heard and understood by others with whom I share a familiar cultural and linguistic background has really helped me to continue through my higher education. In general, just speaking Spanish with someone provides such a comforting feeling. I’ve made other homes in programs/organizations, such as the Graduate Student Latinx group, the Inclusive Science Communication and Engagement training program, and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science club. 

Code- Mesh: Work

It’s 9am, I walk into my office and converse with labmates. I ask, “Hey, how’s it going? Did you end up turning in that abstract?” They share their experience during the submission process and we end up talking about other unrelated topics, like issues with tests or what we’re doing this weekend. I know this is a small chat, but it’s nice to learn something new about my labmates. We’re here to be an open ear and support each other. We sometimes make weekend outings and events to just enjoy each other’s company. When I get a chance, I share a bit about myself with my labmates. Things like where I grew up or where my family is from; I feel free to share pieces of myself that make me, me. 

Code- Mesh: School

In my graduate program, we have a two-year proposal that is the barrier to working toward your doctoral degree. It is a heavy process to do alone, so one must reach out to labmates and work closely with professors to ensure the proposal is done well. Having created connections between my labmates and classmates, they were happy to support me through this journey. I struggled with my proposal work. Having worked days on it, I cried through the whole process, was mad at my work, and questioned if I could finish it. But, my professors and colleagues were there to offer their time and support, countless times. They assured me that they were here to read my drafts, to discuss topics, and ensured that I got the help I needed. 

Code meshing to me had to do with being able to enter spaces and be proud of who I am, authentically. I stopped creating misconceptions that I had to act a certain way to fit in or believing in stereotypes of who is a scientist. Instead, I believe that no matter where I am, I will find my community. More importantly, I had to learn to be okay with just not being like everyone else. I think a lot of times, having moved from a HSI to a PWI, I catch myself questioning my positioning in higher education. I’m not White, or tall, or a guy, or from a stable household. But that’s okay, because you know what I am: I’m Mexican-American, I’m a short Latina that is resourceful in any situation because she came from a low-income household. I’m someone that doesn’t give up when the going gets tough because if I can live a life of financial struggle and everyone is questioning my position in higher education, I can make it through graduate school. So what if we’re a little different, we’re still getting that degree and adding a little bit of sazon to it. 

[Additional Advice]

The emotions are normal 

As a first-generation grad student, school can come with a wave of emotions. Sometimes it can take time to process the emotions that come from reaching your long awaited dream. Other times, maybe having to move far away from your community can be lonely. The best advice is to find yourself support groups, this means finding a group of friends that understand you, or a mentor that you can chat with, and/or a club you can join. This may require you to get out of your comfort zone, but like my mom says – ponte las pilas

Don’t be afraid to look for resources 

If you are low-income, find the resources you need and go and get them. This means going to those free food banks or attending those lunch-ins because they give out free food. Perhaps you see a scholarship/fellowship that looks perfect for you, but you question yourself. NO! Just do it. As a BIPOC, you might get a lot of NOs in your life, so be the one constant that always says, YES. Be like Nike; just do it! 

Find out how you best learn and communicate that with others

If you were a bad student, like me, studying might be hard because you never learned how to do it properly. Yes, there is a proper way to study. Learn how you learn the best and make sure you continue to teach yourself that way and let others know. I have come to terms that I might be on the neurodivergent spectrum and I’ve had to communicate with my mentors and professors on how I process information. It’s helped me out in learning better and also in creating a good relationship with my mentors; maybe this will also work for you. 

Don’t be afraid to talk to professors, they want to support you

Go and talk to your professors, graduate school is all about learning and who better to learn from than from professors. Reach out and try to connect and find the faculty that want to support and advocate for their students. These professors will ask you how you’re doing; they’ll review all your applications.They may be a little tough with you by giving you strict deadlines or such, but you can just tell that they want you to succeed. So go talk to your professor, no matter what. 

Growth can be challenging but well worth the struggle 

Overall, I can tell you that pursuing a higher education comes with so many transformations. It’s more than just a growth process, it’s an evolution process where you are continuously learning something new about your field, yourself, and your limitations. And because you have to learn so many new things, it might be a little painful. Just know that you are not alone and you have your support groups to cry to and support you through this. Okay, best of luck! You got this, I love you!

Contact me with any questions you may have during this journey:


  1. Mady! (2021, November 6). “Sometimes science is more art than science” – A Rick Sanchez playlist. Youtube.

1 Comment

  1. Katie Levin

    I loved reading this! And I may be nerdy, but I especially appreciate how code-meshing gives you more of the unfracturable properties of an alloy.

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