By Abby McConnell, SJSU Office of Research
Despite her acceptance to graduate school at Stanford in the fall and an impressive undergraduate career, which boasts three associate degrees, internships with NASA and the Port of San Francisco, along with participation in the McNair Scholars Program, the Engineering Leadership Pathways Scholars Program (ELPS) and the Stanford Summer Undergraduate Research Programs (SURF), Andrea Coto is still a bit shocked that she was recently awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP). Securing a fellowship is intensely competitive: For the 2018 competition, NSF received over 12,000 applications and made 2,000 award offers.
The GRFP is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, and recognizes outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees. NSF Fellows often become knowledge experts who contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.
In the more immediate future, the fellowship will fund three years of Coto’s graduate program. While still processing the news, she is already mapping out the possibilities. Her NSF proposal and anticipated graduate research will focus on one of her passions: sustainable design and construction as it relates to extreme environments, specifically outer space.
“Space exploration is really a giant lab, right?” she said. “I want to bring that research back to earth.”
When asked how she’s achieved so much in such a short time, she shrugged and smiled. “I apply to programs I’m interested in,” she said. “I figure they have to pick someone, so why not me?’”
From El Salvador to the Mission District
Several years ago, Coto herself might have doubted this kind of self-assuredness. If not for a handful of key mentors, she said, she wouldn’t have made it this far.
Coto was born in the Bay Area, but much of her young life was spent in El Salvador, the native county of both her parents. After their separation and divorce, Coto’s mother was left to raise Coto and her brother on her own.
“My mom is the most resilient and resourceful person I have ever met,” Coto said. “She even learned to bake so she could sell bread to pay our bills.”
Although Coto earned a technical degree in civil engineering in El Salvador, upon graduation, there were no job opportunities. Soon afterward, relatives in San Francisco invited her to come live with them. Coincidently, she had saved just enough money for a flight to the Bay Area. She was hesitant to leave her family and her boyfriend behind, but she knew it was the only way.
Her early days here were challenging, from trying to learn conversational English to working at a Dollar Store in the Mission for $6 an hour. Things shifted when she started taking non-credit ESL classes at City College of San Francisco, and her English language skills were buoyed by her work in retail, which included selling shoes at Macy’s.
She eventually matriculated at the Ocean City College campus, where she met a key mentor, Dr. Edgar Torres. After a difficult semester juggling three jobs and failing Calculus II, she told Torres she was going to drop out.
“I told him I wasn’t smart enough to be an engineer,” she said. “He told me that wasn’t the problem, and that I should take the class again with a different professor. I did, and got a B+.”
Early mentors like Torres were invaluable to Coto, and she has consistently sought out female and Hispanic engineers, graduate students and professors as role models along the way.
“I don’t believe in the ‘you can’t see, you can’t be’ philosophy, but representation is incredibly important,” Coto said.
Finding a ‘Pathway’ at SJSU
Once at SJSU, she worked diligently to leverage the resources available to her. She also credits professors and administrators such as Dr. Laura Sullivan Green from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, McNair Scholars Director Dr. Maria Elena Cruz, and Engineering Leadership Pathway Scholars program founder Dr. Thalia Anagnos, for guiding her and showing her what was possible.
Anagnos created the ELPS program in partnership with the NSF, and it has provided scholarships, mentoring, leadership and career development to more than 70 low-income, academically talented students at SJSU.
While they have all been exceptional, Anagnos said Coto stands out. “From her first weeks at SJSU, she sought opportunities to both better herself and give back,” she said. “Andrea is a natural leader in all areas of her life—academic, professional and personal—but she also brings a genuine optimism to her every interaction.”
Even when discussing the recent death of her father, that optimism is evident. Coto learned he had terminal cancer in the midst of applying to graduate schools and the NSF program. As she toured places like MIT and Stanford, she sent him photos and videos so that he could share in the experience. She also returned to El Salvador several times last fall to visit him.
“Being there with him before he died healed a lot of things,” she said.
Looking Toward the Future
Despite this loss, she continues to move forward. Her mother, brother and her boyfriend (who is now her husband) were able to join her in the U.S. in 2013, and she views her accomplishments as collective achievements. “All that really matters is that we are together,” she said.
As graduation nears, Coto is focused on yet another goal: outreach. She wants underrepresented students like herself to hear her story and see where they can go, and in the process, hopefully shift negative narratives around Latino immigrants.
“Storytelling is powerful. I believe it’s the way we change lives and perspectives, especially in light of the current administration,” she said. “I want to fight the misconceptions about El Salvadorians and other immigrants from my own ‘trench’ in this way, in order to increase knowledge and understanding.”