Avalon High School student, Arlene Cazares Garcia, was surprised last month with a $50,000 STEM scholarship from Edison International. Each year, only 30 high school students from Southern California are selected for scholarships by the Edison program. Edison International is the parent company of Southern California Edison and one of the largest corporate philanthropic companies.
The Edison International program was developed to help students from underserved communities pursue a STEM major at a higher education level. Edison International has awarded more than $13.5 million in scholarships to 730 students through the Edison Scholars Program since 2006. The Edison Scholars Program is funded entirely by Edison International shareholders. SCE encourages students from underserved communities, underrepresented groups, and first-generation college students to apply.
Garcia will be the first in her family to attend college. Through her education in mechanical engineering and mathematics, she hopes to develop powerful enzymes capable of decomposing plastic products without the use of petrochemicals. Her goal is to create a circular economy that will generate sustainability.
“Growing up on Catalina Island, the effects of climate change are something I constantly see, whether that be the amount of plastic in our oceans, water scarcity or rising sea levels,” Garcia said. “Seeing the destruction firsthand that plastic has on our marine life motivates me to want to leave an impact that will better my community and the environment.”
As one of the Edison Scholarship winners, Garcia can now attend the college of her choice and continue her STEM education without having to worry about any financial debts.
“I know our financial situation, so this scholarship means so much because, without it, I couldn’t have gone to UCLA or any other university. I know how much debt can hurt a person, and I personally would not want to be in debt even if that meant not going to college,” Garcia said. “This scholarship has helped me go to one of the best schools in the nation and has taken a lot of relief off my shoulders, not just for me, but for my family too.”
In 2021, Garcia’s father was diagnosed with cancer. Garcia said that her father always encouraged her to prioritize education. Even after her dad passed away, she maintained a 4.0 GPA during her toughest times because of the strength and encouragement her dad gave her.
Once Garcia is done pursuing her dream career, she plans to return to Catalina Island to become a teacher or an engineer working on providing sustainable energy for the island.
CALÓ NEWS interviewed Garcia to discuss her passion for STEM and her bright future in mechanical engineering.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
ARLENE CAZARES GARCIA, 18, CATALINA ISLAND, AVALON K-12 SCHOOL, MEXICAN, SHE/HER
WHY IS STEM IMPORTANT FOR YOU AND OTHER LATINO STUDENTS?
Since I live in Catalina Island, I’m very close to the ocean and I participate a lot in underwater cleanups. So, I see first-hand the structure that plastic has on our ocean. I was researching the ways that we can combat this universal problem, and I learned that there’s this plastic eating enzyme that destroys plastic where it can be reused over and over again. Because when we recycle that piece of plastic, it gets weaker and weaker, but this enzyme will decompose the plastic without the use of petrochemicals.
I’m also very interested in climate change since it is the number one problem in the world right now, and we can’t really put it at the bottom of our list. That’s why it is important that I pursue a STEM career. I also want to reduce my carbon footprint in any way, shape or form.
WHAT CAREER IN STEM ARE YOU PURSUING AND WHY?
Right now I’m declaring in engineering, but since I live on the island I haven’t done a lot of engineering programs or opened myself to that field at all. UCLA has a lot of engineering pathways and careers, so I hope that when I go to UCLA I can explore all my options and see which fits me best.
WHAT MAKES YOU STAND OUT FROM OTHER LATINO STEM STUDENTS WHO ARE PURSUING THE SAME CAREER CHOICE?
Well since I lived on the island for most of my life I kind of got used to this sort of awareness of climate change more. And I also work with the Conservancy, which is a nonprofit organization that helps with conserving water and the plants. So, I know a lot about not just the ocean, but also about the land. Growing up I just learned a lot of things about the island and the importance of our environment and I really care about our future and the impacts that we have on our world.
DID YOU HAVE ANY LATINO TEACHERS TEACHING STEM? IF NOT, HOW DOES THAT AFFECT YOU AND OTHER LATINO STUDENTS?
So, all of my teachers are White females, but I don’t think that it has affected me a lot, especially since my AP calculus teacher is also my cross-country teacher. And she has helped me with a lot of things, like the passing of my dad, cross country, school and scholarships. I’m also very intimidated to go into STEM, but Ms. Findley always tells me the importance of women of color entering these fields of studies. She motivates me to be the best and to keep going. But I also think that because I live in a Latino-concentrated area and this place is very Mexican-populated, I haven’t lost that connection with my community at all. I actually think I lack diversity in other cultures. Like I have a lot of access to my community but not others.
HAVE YOU BEEN ACCEPTED TO ANY UNIVERSITIES? IF SO, WHICH SCHOOL WOULD YOU LIKE TO ATTEND AND WHY?
Yes, so I actually already committed to UCLA. I was also interested in these private schools in Claremont, but then I got accepted to UCLA and I just started reevaluating everything and I started realizing that maybe it’s better for me to go to a larger school and make these connections that I haven’t been able to make in the last 14 years. Sometimes people say that what will help you in life are connections more than anything else.
WHAT MAKES YOU WANT TO GO BACK TO CATALINA ISLAND AND GIVE BACK TO YOUR COMMUNITY?
If I ever become an engineer or if I even go into the mathematics route and become a math teacher, I’m definitely considering coming back to the island and just helping out my community with what I had mentioned before about the plastic problem or just helping the economy or even just helping out at the school, especially since my biggest role model is my mom and my science role model would be Ms. Findley.
I look up to my mom a lot because she is undocumented and left her family at a really young age with my dad and came to the states. She really doesn’t have any other family besides me and my brother over here. She is one of the strongest women I know. She has suffered losses from her grandparents all the way over here and has not gone back. Also with the loss of my dad, she still manages to carry on and tries everything that she can to help us even though she doesn’t know much about school. But she manages in a lot of other ways. She’s just a really strong woman and I look up to her a lot.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OTHER LATINO STUDENTS, WHO WANT TO PURSUE STEM?
I would definitely recommend not getting discouraged. In my high school years, I’ve had times when I felt like I couldn’t handle it. I also had language barriers and never been exposed to other educational programs. There have also been times when there’ve been challenges at school and I really doubted myself during those times. You always have to keep reminding yourself that you can do it and just because you have all those barriers, it doesn’t mean that they have to stand in your way. You can pursue whatever you set your mind to, everything is possible, but always remind yourself to not get discouraged.