By LANIE ALFARO
On the wall in the MESA classroom at City College there hangs an inspirational poster that reads: “The cornerman says there’s no crying in MESA. We’re in this fight to win and we win. We win a lot.”
Rafael Alvarez, known as the cornerman to his students (a boxing term), is this year’s recipient of the 2021 Outstanding Engineering Educator Award, given by the San Diego County Engineering Council (SDCEC).
The Allied Gardens resident is the director of the San Diego City College Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program, which is an academic support program for students transferring to four-year universities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The majority of the MESA Program students — a.k.a. “Creators” — are first-generation college students, economically disadvantaged, and underrepresented in STEM fields. Through this program, Alvarez shares his fighting spirit for his community and his students — a spirit that he developed attending Patrick Henry High School.
Originally from the Encanto area, Alvarez’s formative years began with hour-long bus rides to Pershing Middle School and eventually, Patrick Henry High School. As a young student, he discovered a passion for STEM and the necessity of hard work in these learning environments. It was also at these schools where he realized the challenges he faced as a minority student.
“The classroom environment was a different environment from the bus environment and from the neighborhood environment,” he said. “You’re interacting in all these different backgrounds, and of course, I figured it out. Our experiences make up who we are. The challenges especially.”
However, those challenges did not deter the passion and drive he had for mathematics and STEM.
“It was a challenge for me but I needed to excel,” he said. “That’s where my motivation came from.”
That motivation earned Alvarez the honor of graduating Valedictorian at Patrick Henry High School before going on to graduate form Harvey Mudd College — a science-focused college in Claremont, California.
Alvarez also credits his family as an integral force that forged his work ethic and tenacity.
“I always saw myself as my dad’s right-hand man,” he said. “My dad is a master welder. I started working with him around age 12 or 13. In there, there’s a very important lesson and that is you have to work for things. You work for it. Things aren’t just given to you.”
He took this lesson with him into the collegiate environment and electrical engineering industry.
After spending time working for the aerospace division of TRW, Inc. in Redondo Beach, Alvarez made the choice to become an educator. His teaching methods are a reflection of the foundational lessons he learned in his schooling experiences and childhood memories. He founded the City College MESA Program in 2000.
“I’ve shaped my program into a learning culture because of my experiences,” he said, adding that he sees learning culture as 10% knowing how to approach the learning (taking notes, repetitious review, etc.) and the other 90% is mindset. The language of that mindset starts with commitment, self advocacy, emotional intelligence, and mental toughness. As the cornerman put it: “They must want it as much as they breath.”
However, the purpose of the learning culture is much more than just wanting to achieve a degree in STEM, according to Alvarez.
“The purpose for the learning culture is freedom. Freedom gives my students the ability to define themselves and not be defined by others, or outcomes, or situations,” he said. “When that comes together, nothing is going to stop them. That’s where the power is.”
The students are the best indicator of how effective the learning culture method is. Alvarez shared an experience in interacting with a Latino young man who was graduating from San Diego High. He noted that the student said, “I like that you don’t question potential. We don’t usually hear that. We usually are told that we can’t do it and then we start to believe it.” Alvarez’s response to that experience was the realization, “If we don’t validate them, they’re marginalized.”
Rather than continue on the close-minded path of marginalization, Alvarez advocates for the creation of a different mindset when it comes to the culture of higher education and STEM.
“In the learning culture, we don’t question potential,” he said. “We all have gaps, but we don’t question their potential. The challenge is to learn the learning culture and use it to fill the gaps. Culture is who we are. We own it. My students take that culture with them to the university and that mindset and that attitude.”
In looking to the future of the MESA program and its learning culture, Alvarez believes there is still a long way to go.
“The 2020 completion report [from Clearinghouse Research] tells that the marathon continues. Underrepresented students of color are still at the bottom. The battle is still there,” he said.
But today, Alvarez and the MESA program are celebrating the honor of receiving the 2021 Outstanding Engineering Educator Award.
“The award is recognition of me, but more so, it is recognition of my students and program. I am empowering my kids in the learning culture to give them a way to define their reality in higher education,” he said.
That reality is one Alvarez hopes will continue to grow in diversity and inclusion as students embrace their unique learning journeys.
— Lanie Alfaro is an editorial intern for San Diego Community Newspaper Group.