Skip to main content

Graduate student exemplifies resilience, adaptability during Penn State journey

13 December 2021
Ester Muñoz
Esther Muñoz who identifies as Chicano-Native American recommends students find their community on campus and reach out for help when needed. Image provided.

Finding one’s identity throughout college and beyond can be challenging for many, but through embracing her unique heritage, Esther Muñoz is making her way.

Muñoz, a third-year graduate student studying geosciences and biogeochemistry at Penn State, is a first-generation college student hailing from San Francisco, California. The youngest of seven children, Muñoz’s mother is from Mexico and her father is from Nicaragua. She identifies with her Mexican and Indigenous heritage, which she said can be a tough topic, especially in the United States.

For example, when completing the U.S. Census, the question about race doesn’t allow her to select the most accurate representation of who she is, as there are no Native American tribes outside of the U.S. included.

“By the eyes of the United States government or by even Natives here, I’m not technically Native American to the U.S.,” Muñoz said. “But I’m Native American to the Americas.”

She said her identity as a Chicano-Native American makes for difficult discussions because there’s a lot of gray area — people feel differently about how she and others in her position identify racially and culturally. In places like her parents’ home countries, citizens don’t want to be identified as Indigenous — but that only made Muñoz more interested in learning about her peoples’ history and finding her identity.

Muñoz began her academic journey at 25 when she started at a community college. She then transferred to the University of California in Santa-Cruz, where she received an undergraduate degree in earth and planetary science. In 2019, she started graduate school at Penn State. During her undergraduate work, Muñoz discovered the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in STEM (SACNAS). This organization made her realize why such inclusive spaces are important to have, especially in predominantly white areas, and she has continued her affiliation with the organization at Penn State.

“In California, I’d walk out the door and I don’t feel out of place necessarily, but when I’m here I’m struggling,” Muñoz said. “Here I walk out the door and there’s not even a real taqueria outside of Lupita’s, and even then, I have to drive outside of State College to even get some legit Mexican food.”

Currently, Muñoz serves as the president of this SACNAS chapter, which was founded in January 2018 to engage diverse groups of students in the sciences. In the meetings she runs, Muñoz hosts engaging speakers and starts conversations about “taboo” topics such as what being Hispanic means to members. Overall, SACNAS’ mission is to foster “the success of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans, from college students to professionals, in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM,” according to the national organization’s website.

According to SACNAS, 66.6% of the STEM workforce is white, while only 6% is Hispanic, 4.8% Black, and 0.2% Native American. This, Muñoz said, is a problem that she hopes to help solve through pursuing her academic passion: space.

These statistics motivated Muñoz to work even harder toward her goals. Only two schools in the country offer a doctorate in astrobiology, including Penn State, and after Muñoz connected with an adviser in the department, Christopher House, she was accepted into the roughly five-year program. She is studying a way to differentiate between biologic and nonbiologic signatures in organic compounds.

In addition to her work in SACNAS and academically, Muñoz is connected with the Indigenous Peoples’ Student Association (IPSA) and Minority Graduate Students in STEM (MGS) and Graduate Women in Science (GWIS).

Throughout her graduate journey, Muñoz has branched out to academics in other departments and other organizations to form relationships. That, paired with her network in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) resources, she feels like she belongs at Penn State.

“They got my back,” Muñoz said of the DEI office. “I know that I can go to them with confidence and express myself, and they have been nothing but supportive.”

Furthermore, Muñoz has utilized the Eberly College of Science’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion to connect with mentors and bring together on-campus organizations for people of color.

Recently, Muñoz was selected to be a Sloan Scholar to receive a grant to assist with her doctoral studies. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provides the funding for underrepresented students pursuing doctorates in mathematics, science and engineering to pay for professional travel, research, equipment, books and other needs. Muñoz said she’s excited to have received the prestigious fellowship and encourages other minority students to find mentors at Penn State to help them succeed.

“It’s always easier said than done, but it isn’t that hard, I think,” Muñoz said. “It’s just getting past your own fear of insecurity.”

She said young people often keep to themselves and listen rather than asking for help, which may hold them back. She recommends students start making their way at Penn State by going to their college’s DEI department and introducing themselves.

“If you want something, you’ve got to start making those steps,” Muñoz said.

Being resourceful and putting oneself out there will take one places they may never have thought possible, Muñoz said. For other Latinx students, Muñoz reminds them they’re not alone on campus even if it seems like it at times.

“We’re here, we’re just spread out,” Muñoz said. “We’ve got to find each other. It’s not impossible — it just takes some work.”

Outside of her academic work, Muñoz loves to go hiking and camping. She is involved with Latino Outdoors, a national organization committed to bringing more people of color into outdoor activities.

Penn State has many opportunities for students to find their community, find support, or get involved throughout their time at the University. For specific resources, visit the Penn State Student Affairs community and belonging webpage