Celebrating Latinx Heritage Month: Mara Cuebas-Irizarry
Every year, North Carolina State University celebrates Latinx Heritage Month, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is thrilled to recognize our outstanding Latinx students who contribute to our diverse community on campus and beyond.
Mara Cuebas-Irizarry, from Puerto Rico, is a Ph.D. candidate in microbiology through the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. She chose CALS because she wanted to pursue an advanced degree in microbiology, particularly in biotechnology-related topics.
“At CALS, I have expanded my network and benefitted from several opportunities to grow as a scientist and person,” she says.
Cuebas-Irizarry served on NC State’s Latin American Student Association (LASA) board for four years and participated in outreach activities for Hispanic communities.
“It is important to maintain a sense of belonging on campus and share opportunities with others like yourself through community and culture,” she says. “The association helps us support each other professionally and personally.”
Because most members are far from their families, preserving their community helps them overcome challenges and acclimate to the new environment.
For example, members might share which supermarkets carry plantains for mofongo, dough for arepas or home country bread, called pan sobao.
At CALS, I have expanded my network and benefitted from several opportunities to grow as a scientist and person.
Another adjustment concerns retaining their cultural identity while adapting to U.S. surnames. “Few people understand that Latinx people use both last names, and few people change their last names after marriage,” Cuebas-Irizarry explains. “In North Carolina, I started using the hyphen to avoid confusion.”
Additionally, LASA hosts activities to welcome new members, creating a home-like environment where they can speak their preferred language comfortably. The association also holds a research symposium to showcase the research of Latinx NC State students.
Before pandemic restrictions, LASA members visited a Garner Middle School English as a second language class, where they held outreach STEM events to encourage students to pursue higher education. “It was fascinating to see them excited about us, who also speak Spanish, doing great things at the graduate school level. They said they wanted to be like us one day,” says Cuebas-Irizarry.
She also works with CALS International Programs as an English-Spanish translator when people from Hispanic countries visit NC State for training. “I think having people who speak multiple languages is important because it creates a more inclusive and welcoming environment. It opens the door to many opportunities.”
Representation is key to recruiting and retaining students of color. “We need more representation to increase diversity,” states Cuebas-Irizarry. “In my Ph.D. lab, a Latinx student who joined after me said, ‘I decided to join this lab because I saw you working here, and having someone like me is important because then I feel like I can do it too.’”
Cuebas-Irizarry emphasizes that CALS should increase efforts to recruit people who can create a more diverse and inclusive place, including diversity of gender, ethnicity and race. “A key to my Ph.D. success has been having an Hispanic mentor,” she affirms, referring to José M. Bruno-Bárcena, CALS professor of microbiology. “We talk about science, life challenges, living far from home and our careers—sometimes in English and Spanish. This relationship has been vital through my graduate school years.”