Lighting the Way

UW Tacoma's Amanda Figueroa is using her love of science and advocacy to help students succeed.

Amanda Figueroa had a choice to make—eat or pay the power bill. She chose the former over the latter. At the time Figueroa was enrolled at Green River College, which meant she sometimes did her studying by candlelight.

Figueroa wasn’t always sure she wanted to go to college. She moved out of her parent’s Auburn home shortly after graduating high school. “I was pretty adamant that I wanted to move out right away for no other reason than I was precocious,” she said. 

Figueroa took a job answering phones at a garbage disposal company in Bellevue to pay the bills. She realized early on that she wanted something more for herself. She worked during the day and went to class at Green River in the evening. “I can remember scrambling for change in my car ashtray to pay for enough gas to get home from work,” she said.

After completing her associate’s degree Figueroa transferred to Oregon State University to study marine science. “I had a conversation with my parents where I told them I really wanted to do something with science but was unsure I could get a job in the field,” she said. “They told me if this was my dream then I needed to do it and I felt really blessed that they were willing to take that leap with me.”

Figueroa chose OSU partly because of a specific program run out of the Hatfield Marine Science Center. Funding cuts lead to the program’s cancellation. A friend recommended Figueroa apply to Friday Harbor Laboratories through the University of Washington. “I was accepted there and had a great experience and ended up finishing my degree at UW,” she said.

What followed is a string of events that changed the trajectory of Figueroa’s life. Her passion for science turned into a job with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center where she worked with different species of fish to explore questions about evolution. “I was working for a science facility, I had a 401(k), I had health care, I could pay my bills and it was really exciting,” said Figueroa.

Figueroa comes from a mixed family—her mother is Mexican American, her father is German American. “I started to notice that people of color weren’t my scientific peers, they were the groundskeepers, they were the janitors and that got me thinking,” she said. A mentor introduced Figueroa to SACNAS, the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. Figueroa responded to the organization and its mission, so much so that she helped start a student chapter at UW during graduate school.

One could say, and it seems fitting considering her interests, that Figueroa took to advocacy like a fish takes to water. She received a fellowship from the National Science Foundation and spent time at West Seattle High School teaching marine science to students. “I was looking for things I could do that would be this intersection of equity, education, and science,” she said.

    

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This philosophy lead Figueroa to an oceanography lab at UW that emphasized citizen science. “They asked me if I’d be interested in helping them with their outreach and their education efforts,” she said. Figueroa’s work at the lab attracted the attention of Joel Baker, who holds the Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science at UW Tacoma, and is the science director for the Center for Urban Waters. She was eventually offered a position at Urban Waters and made the move after funding for her work in Seattle started to run out.Figueroa came to UW Tacoma in 2012. In addition to her work at Urban Waters, she took on the revitalization of a youth education collaboration called the Math–Science Leadership program. “I had basically four months to redesign MSL, to redo the curriculum and find the funding,” she said. Her efforts paid off. The program, which connects underserved kids to STEM fields, is now in its fifteenth year.

Around the same time, UW Tacoma’s student affairs division was reorganizing. Then-Vice Chancellor of Student and Enrollment Services Cedric Howard wanted to bring someone onboard who could think holistically about students. “I was encouraged to apply for the position but wasn’t sure because that meant stepping away from science,” said Figueroa. “I ultimately decided this would be a way to help diversify the university, to define polices that could reduce barriers for students,” she said.

Figueroa applied for the position and started as the Director of Student Transition Programs in 2013. A major goal of student transitions is to help build a college-going culture. This commitment starts in middle school and extends to life after graduation from UW Tacoma. “We’re not here just to get our students degrees, our responsibilities don’t end when they walk across the stage,” she said.

This vow to create access and opportunity is more than a job to Figueroa; it’s personal. “I’m very aware that when I walk into spaces that it’s not just me that’s in the space, it’s my whole family, it’s everyone who didn’t have the same chances I did, it’s everyone who was told college wasn’t an option for them, that didn’t have anything to look forward to in their future and it hurts me,” she said.

Figueroa’s beliefs are rooted in her experience. She was a first-generation college student. Her parents may not have known how to navigate the thicket of higher education but they instilled in their daughter a fierce sense of purpose. So, the decision not to pay the power bill makes total sense. Who needs electricity when you have your own inner light.

Section: 
Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / February 13, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu