Physical scientist, equity advisor, NOAA Ocean Exploration
She grew up thinking "people like her" didn't do what she did. But she did.
"People Like You"
Being the Exception
Catalina grew up in a hard-working, Cuban immigrant family of little means who believed that children worked to help their families and that only boys should go to school. So, as a kid, she helped care for her family, especially her sick grandmother, worked in factories with her mother, and barely went to school. “By the time I was 16 I had my own apartment, I was fully self-supporting, working 3 jobs at a time. I was still caring for my mom, who always needed help. I took care of my mom until she died in 2015. I knew, without having the language for it at the time, that I had to improve my ability to get a better-paying job, so I had to get an education.” She began by learning how to type, and progressed to being a trainee for work in a lighting showroom where she had her own desk and business cards, learning to read blueprints. Working in retail helped her move forward, but what really changed things was taking her General Education Development (GED) test, and beginning to take college classes. She took courses at New England Institute of Technology, the Community College of Rhode Island, Johnson and Wales, and Rhode Island College before setting her sights on the University of Rhode Island.
"People Like You"
“Honestly, I never in a million years believed URI was attainable for me, ever,” recalls Catalina. “I thought URI was an elite space that I just didn’t believe I could ever have access to. ‘People like you’ — I heard that all the time, and so I believed it. You perceive yourself in very limited ways when that’s all you know.” At the time (pre-internet) you researched colleges in a library reference room, thumbing through fat books with thin pages. Catalina got to know the librarian at the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program (UCAP), where she worked at the time, whose partner Paul (I will get his last name) was a financial aid officer at URI. “He’s the one who sat with me and said, ‘You can do this. I can help you figure it out. He helped me start investigating things.” Catalina met with advisors at the Rhode Island Higher Education Authority, and eventually finished four degrees at URI: a bachelor’s in zoology, and masters’ degrees in oceanography, marine affairs, and business.
From Rob DeBlois, Director of UCAP and a quadriplegic, Catalina learned to turn a no into a yes. “He crashed through every door – literally!. He taught me that no's are not real barriers, they’re not walls. A door might be closed right now, but you’re going to figure out how to get it open.” She heard plenty of no’s, plenty of ‘there’s no process for that,’ “Whatever!” She says. “I would say, ‘Well, we’re going to create a process for it together.’ They’d say, ‘No, you can’t.’ I’d say, ‘I think we can, so let’s investigate how.’ “
Oppressive gendered beliefs inherent in particular cultures are what keep many young women from sharing Catalina's “luck" -- her word for her success. Part of this luck came in the form of mentors like Jennifer Specker, a URI professor who became Catalina’s mentor and friend. “She would walk me into different places and spaces at URI and introduce me to people. She taught me what it meant to champion others. She was my champion.” Specker helped Catalina find the opportunity to go to Puerto Rico and work with scientists studying coral reefs as an undergraduate, and encouraged Catalina to apply for graduate school at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography to continue her studies.
Catalina strongly recommends finding your people — whether it’s through community organizations and libraries, or alternative high schools like the Urban Collective Accelerated Program School in Providence or national societies such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Catalina has built family out of community at every stage in her life, and considers this her ‘Super Power.’ “Anything is possible if you surround yourself with good people.” She herself has benefited from connection with the following professional groups and opportunities:
The American Indian Science & Engineering Society (AISES)
While she was at URI, Catalina worked full time at night and on weekends at a shelter for women and children who were victims of abuse. “I was the overnight resident for three straight years, doing emergency intakes for people who were running for their lives.” The job offered room and board, which allowed her to live closer to URI, and kept her days free to study. Although Catalina says that one of the schools where she took classes prior to enrolling at URI was for-profit and somewhat predatory (forcing students to take loans), her need to get ahead through education took precedence. She was able to fund her first two graduate degrees through Fellowships, grants and scholarships, and her business degree was paid for through a NOAA workforce graduate studies program, so the only student loans she had to take out were associated with her undergraduate studies. She feels very fortunate.
Being the Exception
“You can perpetuate the cycle or you can do things very differently,” Catalina says. Despite all the hard work and sacrifices she has made to get ahead, she feels fortunate to have been able to work her way out and up—a feeling that is compounded because she sees many of her family, friends, and colleagues falling back. “I live my life believing that I am one foot away from poverty and homelessness. I always have that in the back of my mind.” It is part of the reason she didn’t continue on to a Ph.D. in oceanography — because she didn’t want to give up the security of the federal salary and benefits NOAA offered. While Catalina has not only provided opportunities for herself, but for many others, through her work to increase diversity, equity, and justice in STEM fields, she notes the responsibility so often placed on people representing marginalized groups to look after their own — and not on those who don’t face such barriers in their professional and personal lives.
Despite these successes, Catalina calls herself “the exception, not the rule,” and that’s not okay with her. “No matter what it took me to get here,” she says, “my job is to lower the bar for the next person. I have to be able somehow in my lifetime to mitigate these obstacles for others who come next. That’s my real job — not so much the ocean science anymore — that’s what I do full time at this point.”