I made my way to a room in the Taubman Health Sciences Library where the other Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) board members had been preparing the welcoming social, a small introduction to SACNAS and an opportunity for board members and general members to intermingle. SACNAS is a student run organization that promotes diversity in the scientific professoriate and workforce via community outreach, professional development, and general support. I joined the SACNAS as fundraising chair with the intention of helping promote diversity in STEM fields. As a Cuban immigrant my path to graduate school had been facilitated by similar programs. I wanted to give back, to assist individuals who shared similar pasts and aspired to reach similar goals; I hadn’t considered how SACNAS would impact my own graduate career.
I envisioned graduate school as a straight path with few turns. In reality, graduate school took on a sinuous shape with straight lines contorted into angles, each redirection forced by some unforeseen variable or complication. These angles grew increasingly disorientating, an unfortunate side effect worsened by the move to Michigan, a state culturally and geographically distant from Florida. In Florida, a Cuban restaurant occupied every other street corner, my family – including my parents, grandparents, cousins, and sibling – lived a short car drive away. I could walk next door and immediately see decade old friends. I had accumulated a strong support that grounded me even when I was at my worst. Without that support system, the stress easily accumulated and I often felt overwhelmed. In SACNAS I found a coterie of researchers traversing similar paths, individuals shaped by similar upbringings, facing similar stressors.
The room in Taubman Library had adopted the aroma of tamales, ropa vieja (shredded beef), and arroz con leche (rice pudding), dishes set out by Anabel, our social coordinator, and the chief engineer of our welcome social. I remembered consuming these foods regularly in Florida; the move to Michigan along with my abhorrent cooking skills meant I had mostly phased them out of my diet. I helped Carla, our president, finish preparing name tags for the board members and positioned myself by the food where I traded lab stories with Kyle and Yanay, our treasurer and secretary. After most of our general members arrived, we each introduced ourselves before giving a summary of SACNAS. I’m not the most adept public speaker as evidenced by my 4 second introduction which ended with a quick glance, a subtle SOS, to Nick, our social chair. He promptly started his introduction. I was later assured that it wasn’t bad but I’m still skeptical. For the rest of the welcoming social we ate great food and had great conversations. The board members made a point of periodically changing tables, which I also used as an opportunity for second servings.
With over 40,000 students attending, it seems like it would be difficult to feel isolated at the University of Michigan. Yet life likes practical jokes and oftentimes it’s in the most populated places that people can find themselves the loneliest. For graduate students who work long unstructured hours towards a nebulous endpoint, this joke can feel particularly unfunny. That’s where organizations like SACNAS come into play. SACNAS doesn’t just conduct outreach and facilitate professional development, it excels at providing an understanding, welcoming, and inclusive space where individuals can share their frustration without fear of judgment. These aren’t carefully crafted smiles meant to present an image, they are reflexive and honest and behind them are people ready to listen.