Claudia Corona at Graduation. Photo Courtesy SFSU

Two Latina San Francisco State University students received special recognition at the university’s May 27 commencement ceremony, which celebrated the graduation of more than 8,000 students at AT&T Park.

Representing the College of Science and Engineering, graduate student Claudia Corona and undergraduate student Adriana Garcia were chosen to wear academic hoods to symbolize their high class ranking. Both women are first-generation college students with a passion and curiosity for the sciences.

“I grew up understanding opportunities are rare,” said Corona. “My parents worked all the time and I had to take care of my siblings. I knew my parents weren’t going to have the money to pay for my school and I knew I was going to work hard so they didn’t have to deal with the stress of paying for my tuition.”

Corona grew up on the inner city streets of the Pico-Union neighborhood in Los Angeles. A daughter to Mexican, immigrant parents, Corona was 16 when she took her first trip to the Sierra Nevada mountain range and realized her love of the natural environment.

“It was my first camping trip, my first time hiking—my first everything,” said Corona, recalling that on this high school field trip she started connecting the dots, and the relationship between her community and the sciences. “I was so impressed. I wanted to couple this with the idea that Latinos are closed off from nature. They are exposed to environmental racism.”

Corona described environmental racism as the stripping of people’s rights. Her focus area of study is climate change as it relates to groundwater resources. Describing the connection between science and community, she cited people’s fight for access to clean water, specifically the lawsuit against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power that established the public trust doctrine, which protects against total privatization of water sources.

Adriana Garcia at San Francisco State University. Photo Courtesy SFSU

For Garcia, who grew up in the town of Atwater in Merced County, her passion for science was also a discovery. She had started college with the intention of being a graphic designer, but soon turned her attention to biochemistry.

Along with another peer student, Garcia helped initiate a chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) at SF State. After presenting a research poster at a SACNAS conference in Texas, she said she was determined to expand on the organization’s efforts on campus to increase the engagement and number of Chicano and Native American students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

“All graduating students wear traditional cap and gown regalia, but these 12 students receive hoods which symbolize they are the top students in their classes,” said SF State Communications Director Jonathan Morales, explaining one graduate and one undergraduate student is selected by each of the colleges for a total of 12 students. “Each college selects them and they may have different processes. They get to wear that hood and represent their fellow students.”

In 2016, the citywide graduation rate for Latino high school students increased three percent according to the San Francisco Unified School District, as compared to the overall statewide rate, which increased two percent.

Corona said that during her parents’ visit last week, she had to prepare them by telling them they might be the only Latino family at an award ceremony.

“The higher you go in education, the less Latinos there are,” she explained. “I make friends with my peers and my professors, but there’s always that block of language and experience.”

She added that she regretted not being able to talk at length about simple things such as telenovelas, or about the struggles of her close friends back home, who experienced teenage pregnancies or life in gangs.

Both she and Garcia credit their achievements to the communities that made them.

“I like to think that these things [don’t] get to my head because it’s not about me,” said Corona, who was invited to address the class of 2016 during the graduation ceremony. “I’m the combination of all the people supporting me.”