1 in 40K: How two CSUF students overcame adversity

In Lifestyle
CSUF STEM student Madison Cheek experiments in the lab on campus.
(Ryan Matthey / Daily Titan)

The students who attend Cal State Fullerton are on many different academic paths. The series 1 in 40K seeks to highlight some of the 40,000 students across the eight different colleges on campus and their academic achievements.

Madison Cheek

Cal State Fullerton student Madison Cheek’s hometown, Dana Point, is a city with a population that is of more than 83 percent white, but and only 1.5 percent black. It and is the hometown of Cal State Fullerton student Madison Cheek.

Growing up Tthis caused Cheek to consistently be one of the only people of color in her community growing up. It wasn’t until she came to CSUF that she began to feel a sense of belonging and find people she identified with.

“Coming to college and meeting more people who look like me, and that are like me, and accept me, and learning more about black culture and about how I myself fit into it — it has been a very empowering experience,” Cheek said.

In part, this was achieved when she became the leader of a diverse team for the Sex Specific Mating Immunity project (SSMI project) in the Shahrestani Lab of Dan Black Hall.

Here, she is researching fungal infections in fruit flies which can potentially be used to kill off mosquitos in other countries where they transmit deathly diseases like malaria.  Though her lab team is diverse in its members, Cheek acknowledges that it isn’t representative of the larger field of STEM.

“Of course there’s more opportunities branching every day, and the world itself is becoming more diverse, but because it’s such a conservative field, there’s of course the biases and there’s always stereotypes,” Cheek said.

Prejudice is a barrier she’s faced her entire life. This left her straightening her hair, remaining quiet and keeping to herself so as to not be associated with any negative stereotypes growing up.

Now, she doesn’t let the fear of prejudice prevent her from living her life.

“If making a difference or at least trying to make a larger impact on the world is something that I wanted to do, it was never going to be easy,” Cheek said.

When she’s not in lab, she takes on the role of vice president of membership for her music fraternity. While this is more than enough to make her parents proud, she is also a first-generation college student and hopes to pursue a career in forensics in crime labs.

By following this passion, Cheek is hoping to open the door for others and is proud to be a woman of color in STEM.

“There are a lot of opportunities out there, you just have to find them for yourself,” Cheek said.

David Lopez

If you ask David Lopez, a post-graduate student at Cal State Fullerton, how he came to the United States, he’ll say that it was through his pregnant mother’s stomach as she took the risk of getting caught crossing the Mexican border in hopes that her children could get a quality education.

Today, Lopez is a student choir teacher at La Habra high school, where he said he is able to give students an opportunity to similarly follow their passions and be themselves. As a first-generation Mexican American, Lopez said there were many roadblocks in his path to becoming a music teacher, but that he owes much of his success to the support system he had.

In his academic years, his friends, family, high school choir director and teaching programs like GiFT (Growing Future Teachers) are what have enabled him to do what he loves. From the difficulties of learning how to speak English to almost being recruited into a gang, Lopez said music has been a blessing that has led him to a job he doesn’t consider to be work.

Now, Lopez said he wants to pay it forward and make a difference in the lives of the students he teaches. Lopez said he wants to set a good example of what a male figure is, and his ability to speak another language is one way he hopes to better connect with the students who come to his class.

“I want to pass down my knowledge and wisdom of how I can help prepare my students for the big scary world that is up ahead of them,” Lopez said. “That’s why I’m drawn to teaching in a high school level. That’s where my life really turned around for me.”

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