Acceptance: Stories about belonging

This week, we’re presenting stories about the struggle to find acceptance — whether it’s at Space Camp or in the United States of America.

Part 1: Computer scientist LaShana Lewis’s childhood dream of attending Space Camp starts to feel far away — until she gets the Christmas surprise of a lifetime.

LaShana Lewis grew up in the St. Louis area of Missouri where her love of the starry sky led her to the STL Science Center as longtime volunteer, and now a docent presenting talks on astronomy and aeronautics.  LaShana studied computational mathematics at Michigan Technological University, received a HarvardX honor certificate in computer science, and attended NASA space camp.  She discovered Astral AR through the Bootstrapped VC podcast and one thing led to another, joining the company in August 2018 and bringing over 20 years’ experience in tech and consulting.

Part 2: When Guizella Rocabado leaves her home in Bolivia to pursue her education in the United States, her plan hits an unexpected snag.

Guizella Rocabado is a PhD student in chemistry at the University of South Florida. Her research focuses on chemistry education. She is mainly interested in uncovering the narratives of success of students from all backgrounds. Bringing diversity to STEM fields is a great focus of her work. Her current project is the development and testing of instruments for use with diverse populations to investigate the role of the affective domain in undergraduate STEM learning and persistence. In her spare time she loves to travel, try new foods and meet new people.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: LaShana Lewis

So when I was about ten years old, I was a PBS kid.  You could sit me in front of the TV for, like, three hours and I would not even know you weren’t there.  I saw this program about this camp that they had for kids, you could train to be astronauts, Space Camp.  So I was just, like, “Okay, I totally want to go to this.”

So I sat down and I wrote a letter, because back then, it was about late ‘80s or early ‘90s, we didn’t have the internet as prevalent and all of that good stuff.  So they sent me back a brochure and they said, “Okay, it’s about $200.”

Well, at this point, my parents made $6,000 a year, so that was about half a month’s salary.  I kind of knew I was not going to be able to do that because my mom had three kids to take care of.

So I set my dreams aside for going to Space Camp but I said, “You know what?  When I become an adult, I'm going to pay my own way to Space Camp.”  

Then, yes, that’s the exact response that I got, is people laughed at me because they were just like, “Wait a minute.  That’s for kids.  You’re… no, that’s not going to work.”

So I said, “You know what?  Screw those haters.  I’m going to try it anyway.”  I was a tomboy, if you cannot tell.

So I went on ahead and I said, “You know what?  First things first.  I got to get out of the hood.”  I lived in East St. Louis.  That part it was like there were no opportunities available.  So I decided that I would just make straight A’s and do whatever I could to get to a job that would pay me to be able to pay my way to Space Camp.  I have long goals.

So I get into high school and one of my professors there decided to have this class for computer programming.  I was like, “I'm in.  What is this stuff about?”

I do good.  He gives two classes.  I end up actually helping some of my classmates because I do really well in it.  And he said, “You know what, LaShana?  Computers are the future.  You should totally do this when you get to college.”

I listened to him.  He’s an old military guy.  He’s already been exposed to this stuff.  He knows what he’s talking about.

So I found a college that actually not only paid for all of my tuition, room and board, but it also paid for my living expenses for four years in Michigan.  So I went up there to Michigan, and that’s 17 hours away for those of you who have never driven up there before.  I mean, Upper Peninsula Michigan.

LaShana Lewis shares her story at the Ready Room in St. Louis. Photo by David Kovaluk

LaShana Lewis shares her story at the Ready Room in St. Louis. Photo by David Kovaluk

I get into my classroom and I'm trying to get along with all of my classmates, mostly white male peers at that time, and they were like, “You know what?  You started way late programming.  You should have been doing this in junior high, not high school.  And you didn’t have your own computer at home.  You used just the one at school.  No, that’s not going to be sufficient.  

You know what?  Maybe you should try to change your major to something different.”

So that, on top of the fact that many of my professors said that they heard horror stories about women in computer science, that they were sexually harassed, they never got to work on any good projects.  And then if you were black, you already had to work twice as hard.  

Then one white guy told me when we just sitting in a meeting, he said, “You know, every single time I see a black person in the computing-type field, I just assume they got there because of affirmative action.”

So after three and a half years, I left.  I went back home because I ran out of money.  My mom couldn’t afford to come get me during the summers so I literally just had to stay there and I burned through all of the cash that I had.  But I said, “You know what?  When I get back home, I'm going to try to use some of these computing skills.”

I get home.  I put my dreams of going to Space Camp aside for a little while because I knew I needed to get a good job and all of that good stuff.  So I looked for jobs and I got a job as a band driver, and then as a helpdesk agent, and then as a supervisor of helpdesk agents.  But I took each one of those jobs and I used a little bit of my computing skills in them and I just said, “You know what?  This might launch me to a better job.”

So I kept trying to do things to get me promoted and there were always some sort of weird roadblock in the way.  I said to myself, “You know what, this is probably going to be a little bit longer than I anticipated.”

By then, I knew about an adult Space Camp, but I was just like, “There’s no way.  No way.”

Fast forward to Christmas of last year.  I'm sitting in front of the Christmas tree, cross-legged, opening presents and my partner hands me this little small box.  I open the box.  There’s a little sheet of paper in it.  I unfold it.  I look at it.  It’s got a list on there.  There’s a picture of me from years before where I had my head in one of those cardboard cutouts of an astronaut, because you have to take them.  It took me a minute to realize that it was actually a receipt.

Apparently, a bunch of people that I barely knew decided to donate to a crowd-funding page to get me a ticket to go to adult Space Camp.  Thank you.

So you can imagine what I did, I cried.  Then my partner said, “Well, wait.  They donated so much that you have not only that ticket but you get to have a space flight suit and lunch with an astronaut.”  I know.  So I cried some more.

Then I was just like, “You know what?  This is great.  This is what I’ve always wanted.”  But then I kind of took this step back because 10-year-old me was just like, “You know what?  I'm going to go to this Space Camp.  All they care about is that I'm this great person that can get along with my fellow astronaut candidates and that I am serious about my missions and doing them correctly.”  

But 40-year-old me said, “You know what?  There’s sexism and there’s racism and there’s homophobia.  And you’ve experienced those things.  How is that going to affect your trip and your experience?”

So I said, “You know what?  I’ve waited 30-plus years for this.  I am going to bear down and I'm going to deal with all of it.”

So we make the trip end of June.  It’s in Huntsville, Alabama.  I get there through orientation and all and I meet my team, and every single person is white.  I say to myself, “You know what? I am going to do the only thing that I know how to do whenever I'm in a situation that I'm uncomfortable with and that’s that I talk,” like I'm doing now.

So I get there and I’m like, “Okay, I volunteer at a planetarium and they’re teaching me how to do star shows, and I used to draw out of my textbooks on the drawing paper the shuttles and build models and stuff,” and then they were all like nodding in unison.  Like, yes, we’ve done the same thing.

So I'm with this series of adults and we’re all kind of getting along and we all kind of had the same mission in our heads of how we’re going to experience this and I was like, “Okay, great. Well, wait until we have our first project because then you start to see things come out of people.”

LaShana Lewis shares her story at the Ready Room in St. Louis. Photo by David Kovaluk

LaShana Lewis shares her story at the Ready Room in St. Louis. Photo by David Kovaluk

We get to our first project and it’s for us to do these shuttle missions and then land it.  Our shuttle nosedives twice.  I'm just kind of bearing down.  I'm like, “Oh, here were go.”  Nobody argued.  You have to understand that 20 years of working with teams of any kind, I’ve never worked with a team that did not argue when something went wrong.  We kind of all just nodded our heads, knew that things bad happen, and kind of went on.

Then we got to something called the Ropes Course.  For those of you that don’t know what a Ropes Course is, it’s when you have to do a series of team-building exercises in the woods while you’re trying to avoid mosquitoes.  It’s about 90% humidity-Alabama-high-noon kind of day.  We’re in the woods.  We’re going through our activities.  We’re hot.  I'm wearing a full flight suit, don’t ask.  And we get to a point where I have to be co-captain because the facilitator has decided I was going to be co-captain.

So I explained all the rules and we get down to it and we’re like, “Okay, we’re going to go through this mission and we’re going to get everything done.”  What it is is that we have to cross this gravel pit that has these concrete blocks in it.  Then you have to use three wooden planks to get your whole entire team across, plus you have to take those planks with you.

So we decided that, you know what?  We’re just going to do the best that we can.

We pick up that first board and then we drop it right into the penalty zone.  Our penalty was we-we had-had to-to talk-talk like-like this-this the entire time.  So after a few seconds, we decided on hand signals because that was not going to work for us.

We get halfway through.  One of our team members is pulled off, blindfolded, put right back on the boards, and we said, “You-you now-now in-in middle-middle,” because we did not want him to fall off.  

We get all the way to the end and I have this idea.  I'm like, “Okay, I know how we can finish this.”

So I look down, I look at the last guy and I draw a line with my foot, and I said, “This-this is-is solid-solid ground-ground.”  

Then he just kind of looks at me and hands me the board and takes this fantastic 6-foot leap off of the last block all the way to the end of the gravel pit, and it scared the crap out of me but he did really well.

But the thing is that I was heartbroken because my idea was actually to take that board and lay it where my feet was because that was actually technically a safe zone.

Then I just started to feel like, “Why didn’t he listen to me?”  And then those feelings that I was having, that fear of bigotry just started to bubble up and I could feel it in the pit of my stomach.  Before I got any further, he said, “I am so sorry.  I didn’t understand what you were saying because of the double-speak.”

So I went and I grabbed the board and I showed him exactly what I was talking about and he said, “I’m sorry.  I just didn’t know.”

For a moment, I was just kind of stunned because no one had ever apologized to me before for not understanding me, and this guy just kind of made me feel like all of that crappy stuff of those guys saying that stuff to me when I was younger, they were just being jerks.  This is really how you’re supposed to act.

And we made it to graduation.  We’re sitting there just with our team, talking, whatever, and then I hear, “And it goes to Team Mariner.”

We turn around and look because that’s our team name and we’re like, “What?  What did we do?”

So there’s a person waving and they’re like, “Bring down someone.”

So we send a person come to find out.  We won Best Mission out of all of the adult teams.  Even though our shuttle nosedived twice, it was because we were actually paying attention to what we were doing.  We were being considerate of each other, we were working together as a team, being cooperative, and that was all that mattered.  So 10-year-old me was completely right.  

The next time someone asked me to do something when I got back home that I thought was kind of above my head, I told that person, “Yes,” and it was to be CTO of their small startup company.  I decided, you know what?  Life is short.  I'm not putting anything else aside.  Thank you.


Part 2: Guizella Rocabado

I grew up in Bolivia.  My parents sacrificed a great deal to put my sisters and I through a great education.  I liked school, at least some subjects.  I was pretty good at most subjects, only the ones I liked of course, but I was pretty good at school.

My biology teacher took this to the next level.  He took us through stories of how the human body worked, how ecosystems worked together, and they were fascinating.  I loved Biology.  It’s my favorite subject.  I even stayed back during recess to talk to him about all these awesome things.  I was a nerd, I know.

But one of these times during my senior year, I asked him, “You know, I want to be a biologist, perhaps a doctor one day.  Earn my PhD, cure cancer, something awesome.  What are my options?”

He looked at me straight in the eye and with a very serious voice said, “You have to get out of here.  You can’t do that in Bolivia.  Go somewhere else.”

I was shocked but not surprised.  For a while, Bolivia had been in a political climate that wasn’t conducive to science.  I don’t think it had ever been conducive to science really, but this wasn’t changing anytime soon.  And really, if I really wanted to be and do what I wanted to do, I also knew that I needed to get out of there.

But I didn’t have very many options.  My parents did sacrifice everything they had to put us through school.  That meant that we had what we needed but not much else.  I wanted to come to the U.S. because this is the land of opportunity.  I really wanted to come here and be here and have dreams and reach them, but as an international student that meant I had to pay international tuition. 

I couldn’t apply for financial aid.  I couldn’t work more than a few hours a week, and only in certain places.  My parents needed to demonstrate they had I don’t know how much at that time, but basically enough to pay international tuition for four or five years and housing and food and books, and I don’t know how many things.  We didn’t have that.  I didn’t have that.  That wasn’t an option.

Luckily for me, I had an older sister who was just passing her US citizenship test.  So she said, “Hey, why don’t you come as an immigrant?  That will solve all your problems.  You can come here.  You can go to school.  You can work and do everything that you want.  This is the land of opportunity.”

So I graduated on December 2001, packed my bags, packed my parents and our bags, and we came, we came to the U.S.  We landed on February 16, 2002.

I was so excited.  It was cold.  It was in Colorado.  It was snowing.  I’d never seen snow in my life, but it was so exciting.  I didn’t care.  I didn’t care it was cold.  I didn’t care it was snowing.  I didn’t care my hair turned to icicles when I was outside.  I was so excited.

Within three months, my parents had received these beautiful white envelopes from Homeland Security with their green cards.  Mine didn’t come yet but I was hopefully waiting but it would take a couple more weeks or maybe a month or so and that was fine.  

I knew that after 9/11, immigration laws were being revised, new rules and regulations put in place.  Things were getting a little bit complicated, so waiting for an extra month was okay.

Guizella Rocabado shares her story at our show in conjunction with SACNAS 2018. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

Guizella Rocabado shares her story at our show in conjunction with SACNAS 2018. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

One month went by, two, three, four.  Had they lost my file?  I don’t know.  Had they filed it in that round bin?  I don’t know.  So I began to wonder.  Are they going to give me this beautiful white envelope that I’ve been waiting for?

So I called because my parents taught me that when you want something you just have to talk to someone and go get it.  So I called and asked where my file was and if somebody is reviewing it and when I was going to get it approved.  I needed to go to college.  Well, I got tossed around between the Chicago office and the LA office and the New York office and some other offices, and this office and that office.  I really thought my file was lost, but they clearly had it, just it was everywhere.

Then on my 19th birthday, after eight months of waiting, one of the attorneys said, “They seemed to not know whether you’re an adult or not.”  Was 18 years old an adult?  Was 21 years old an adult?  Nobody knew at that point.  It was kind of this limbo situation.  I was 19 and who knew if I was an adult or not, I guess.  They didn’t.

So because it was this ambiguous situation, somebody had decided that they were going to tuck my file in some corner labeled ‘limbo’ and really just leave it there until I was 21 and I was really an adult.  Then they were going to just treat my file as this adult sister of a U.S. citizen and I would have to just wait for a long time.  

The number 12 and the word ‘years’ were thrown in the same sentence and I just couldn’t handle it so I took my 19-year-old crushed soul down to the basement and cried.  I cried that day.  I cried that night.  I cried the next day, continued crying the next night.  

But then I was determined.  My parents had taught me that if I wanted something, I had to work for it.  So I said, “Okay, I’m going to do everything I can.  I will leave no stone unturned.”

So I called Immigration.  I checked online.  I called all of the attorneys I could find in that book.  I called them all.  I called the representatives, the senators, all of them.  I went to their offices.  I wrote essays, I wrote letters.  

I had no response, only, “Oh, yeah, you just wait.  It’s in limbo.  It’s fine. It’s just sitting there.  No worries.  It will get approved eventually.”

Well, some months passed. I kept myself busy.  I volunteered every place I could.  I took all the random online classes I could find.  I learned how to play piano.  That was exciting.  Nothing to do with biology at this point, but I learned to play the harp.  Who can say that?  Yup, yup.  I couldn’t play the violin, though.  That’s just not a thing that I could do.  That whole neck thing, I don’t know.  It wasn’t working for me.

But I kept myself busy.  I had some friends.  Although it was kind of a rollercoaster situation, some days were good, some days were bad, some weeks were good, some months were bad, a lot of months were bad.  At this point, it had been five years.  Five years of playing the piano.  That was good, but not much else.

At this point, all of my high school classmates were graduating from college.  They were going to grad schools or getting awesome jobs, moving on with their lives, getting a second degree while I was just sitting there.  I had been the high school valedictorian and the only one of my friends who had never stepped on a campus, on a college campus, to take a class for credit ever.

The dream of becoming this biologist, this doctor, was very, very distant at this point.  I got a phone call one day when I was at a church activity.  It was a call from home.  My father had had a stroke.  He was at the hospital.  My mom came to pick me up.  We went to the hospital.  We had no idea how this was going to change our lives.

His massive stroke had left him with the whole right side of his body paralyzed, sped up a reaction where he would go blind, and the doctors didn’t know how to stop that.  After two months of being in the hospital, going through therapy, trying to reverse the effects of the stroke, he came back home in a wheelchair and couldn’t work.  So my mom at 65 had to go find a second and third job to try to keep the house, try to pay for medical bills, while I just sat there.

At this point, I just couldn’t take it anymore.  I felt useless.  I felt like I was a burden to my parents.  I couldn’t even drive.  I couldn’t even drive myself anywhere.  It was illegal.  So I decided that I would think really, really hard about going back home and living my life and trying to help from a distance.  But this was a very hard choice if I made it.  Why?  Because if I step one foot outside of the United States at this point, I could never come back with an active petition on immigration.  

Guizella Rocabado shares her story at our show in conjunction with SACNAS 2018. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

Guizella Rocabado shares her story at our show in conjunction with SACNAS 2018. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

If you leave, they retract it.  They don’t care. They’re like, “Oh, she didn’t want it anyways so we’re going to forget about this petition and the fact that she had waited 5 years.”  And then Homeland Security would flag my name because I had overstayed my initial visa and then not allow me entrance again.

So I couldn’t go.  Or could I?  I wasn’t sure what to do.  Should I stay and still live in limbo for who knows how long?  Should I go and never see my parents again, especially my dad?  Well, I had to make a decision.  I thought long and hard and started tying up loose ends.  I didn’t have very many loose ends but I had to tie them.

I had volunteered at one of my friend’s offices for a while and decided to go and finish filing some paperwork.  I was filing some paperwork, not very exciting, but I was doing it.  It was something to do while I thought.  And I received this phone call from home.  It was my mom.  I picked up the phone, a little worried, a little jittery.  I know what this call is about.

She says, “Oh, I have an envelope here for you.  It’s white.  It’s from Homeland Security.”

I was shocked.  What do they want?  So I was just thinking, feeling.  Was I allowed to think and feel?  I wasn’t sure.  So I just sat there quiet.

My mom broke the silence and she said, “It looks a whole lot like the one I got six years ago when I got my green card.”

And I said, “Well, open it.  Read it.”

So I heard the longest two seconds of my life. (Sound of ripping paper.) It said, “Welcome to the United States of America.”

Sweeter words were never spoken.  I had waited six years for those words.  And the first thought in my mind after crying, because I'm a crier, was to run home and hold that piece of paper in my hands, run to the first community college which was only a few blocks away, go to the first open window.  It didn’t matter if that lady was frowning or smiling, I didn’t care.  I put down that paper and said, “I want to be a biologist.  Please enroll me in classes for credit this time.”

Thank you.