Overcoming doubt: A first-generation student’s story

Angelica Berner

A first-generation student, Angelica Berner graduated this December as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Medalist for the Department of Physics.


Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2018 commencement. Read about more graduates

For Angelica Berner, a negative experience is only one that you cannot learn from — and she has learned plenty.

A first-generation student (along with her older brother), Berner graduated this December as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Medalist for the Department of Physics.

Berner began her ASU journey with an emphasis in astrophysics. However, after getting involved in the Department of Physics’ Society of Physics Students and Sundial mentorship programs, she switched her major to physics.

“I learned a lot of about myself from them — the people who were in SPS at the time, and also Sundial,” Berner said. “I thought, maybe it’s better for me to figure out what I actually want to do than to try to just go straight into something so specialized.”

From the beginning, Berner was keen to jump into as many hands-on experiences as she could. Early in her freshman year, she joined biophysics Assistant Professor Sara Walker’s research lab, doing computational modeling. She contributed to a paper that appeared in a 2017 Entropy Magazine Special Issue: “Physical Universality, State-Dependent Dynamical Laws and Open-Ended Novelty.”

She had the opportunity to participate in a National Science Foundation “REU” (research experience for undergraduates) and was in the ASU/Nasa Space Grant for two years. She also completed a summer internship at the NASA Langley Research Center.

Berner worked on data analysis of the disturbance monitoring package on the International Space Station, as well as serving as team leader for her program. The measuring instruments were so sensitive that analysis of the output data could mark when the astronauts woke up.

“That was a really fun experience, being on an actual flight mission,” she said. “That was the best summer of my life, I think.”

There was once a time Berner was sure that she would never be able to participate in such an opportunity. She spent a lot of time doubting that she had what it took to go into the sciences at all, despite a lifelong love and passion for it.

Berner’s family is from Mexico, and she grew up in Chicago, moving around a few places within the city. She was first introduced to her love of science by her older brother — now getting his PhD in mathematics.

“I have this very vivid memory of him: We had two glasses, and we were sharing Hawaiian punch, and I got the taller glass, and he had the big, deep glass, so I said, ‘Ha ha, my glass is taller than yours.’ I think I was 5. And he said, ‘Yeah, but look’ — and he took my glass, filled it up, and then poured it into his, and it filled up this little inch of his glass — and I was like, WHY?”

Her early education continued to fuel her interest until in her freshman year of high school she had a hard time in a math class. She said she thought, “I can’t do math, and so I can’t do science.” And she began to explore other options.

Fortunately, despite professing an intention to pursue another path, Berner never gave up her love of science as a hobby. The last half of her high school education brought a change in schools. With that came the opportunity to participate in a scholarship program that allowed her to take college classes during her junior and senior years and graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

It was here that Berner found the mentors that pushed her to see and accept her genuine interest. This focus on cultivating a growth mindset over a fixed mindset helped her flourish, and she excelled at her coursework despite her belief that she was terrible at math.

“My principal studied math as her graduate degree, and she told me, ‘You are causing yourself to feel that way, by telling yourself that you are horrible at it without giving it a chance,'” Berner said.

While she prepared outwardly for an entirely different career, she participated in the school robotics club, eventually serving as president, and competed in (and won) several FIRST Robotics Competitions — an annual, six-week, international high school robotics competition.

She also spent her free time studying as many professional astrophysics papers as she could get her hands on, printing and keeping them in notebooks. Her friends would ask her questions about space, and she would give them mini lectures on everything she had learned.

“I had those two things fighting against each other, of one, I can’t do this, and yet here I was doing it!” Berner said. “It was odd to have that mentality.”

Berner remembers clearly a story her mother told her, of a day when her mother had come in to collect her report card and conference with her teacher.

“My mom and one of my teachers were talking, and I ran in and told them something about robotics, and then ran back out. And they just looked at each other and said, ‘She’s going to figure it out. She’s going to figure out what she is.’”

Berner credits her family — especially the women who raised her — and mentors she found in her principal and teachers with helping her admit what she wanted.

“They told me: I have to do what I want. Don’t fight it, don’t make excuses,” Berner said. “You have to apply to what you want to do; no one is going to go out and give this to you.”

In her parent’s generation and hometown, many were denied the opportunity for formal education, especially girls.

“I have this opportunity; I’d better figure it out,” she said. So as she started applying for college programs, she included a few that aligned with her real interests: physics, engineering and the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU.

She knew she wanted to attend college far enough from home to give her a new experience, but somewhere that she would still have a support system. So when she was accepted into the program at ASU, where she had family and friends living nearby, she knew it was the right choice.

Now, she can’t imagine having gone anywhere else, or what would have happened if she had not followed her dreams.

“Everything, I think, happened the way it needed to be,” Berner said. “I’ve been given that amazing opportunity to be a part of a community that is so excited to get all of its students to where they want to be.”

After graduation, Berner is applying for both academic and industry opportunities and feels that she will be happy with whatever comes next.

And to any who might think they aren’t "enough" to pursue a degree in something like physics, Berner says to make sure that you are giving yourself enough credit — and to find mentors who will push and inspire you.

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