Rebecca Garcia

Paving the Way for Pacific Islander Students

Learn more about Indigenous Mathematicians Co-Founder Dr. Rebecca Garcia 

After Rebecca Garcia earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Loyola Marymount University, she entered the University of California at Berkeley through the Pre-Ph.D. Program. “Something was off about the whole experience, but at the time I could not put my finger on exactly what it was. We weren’t undergrads obviously, but we weren’t graduate students either,” she reflected. “We were in limbo. We were told to sign up for honors undergraduate courses, while everyone else took graduate courses. The program had an advisor, who spent a total of one lunch hour each year with all the other pre-Ph.D.s to discuss some random topics. Looking back, I would say this program was exactly how you make someone who looks different feel different. It was hard to survive that. In fact, in my year, none of us did.” 

By the start of her third year, in the midst of her prelim exams, Garcia’s father passed away unexpectedly. This led to a series of hardships for her and her family that made her question whether to continue in graduate school. She took a leave of absence and decided during that time that she would return and finish with her master’s degree. She had no concrete plans after that. It was during these dark days, that her undergraduate mentor Herbert Medina tapped her to be one of two graduate teaching assistants at the Summer Institute in Mathematics for Undergraduates in Puerto Rico. This six-week long summer program was designed to support Latino and Native American students pursuing degrees in mathematics. Working for SIMU was transformative for Garcia. It was precisely what motivated her to continue pursuing a doctoral degree in mathematics at New Mexico State University. “SIMU was such an amazing experience,” she reflected. “And I thought – why isn’t there a program like this for Pacific Islanders? Then it dawned on me: ‘I have to be the one to do that!’” It would prove to be one of her most cherished professional contributions.

After acquiring her dream job, she began the pursuit of her dream project: supporting Pacific Islander students in mathematics through a program similar to SIMU. Thus, the idea for Pacific Undergraduates Research Experience in Mathematics  — or PURE Math — was born. Garcia and her colleagues Brian Loft, Efren Ruiz, and Roberto Pelayo worked together to develop the proposal, to co-create the activities, and to secure funding through the National Science Foundation. Their first two proposals were rejected, but this did not deter Garcia. “We are a severely overlooked community.” That second rejection pointed to the high-dollar budget one might expect for a program to run in Hawai`i. After consulting with an NSF program director and reframing their proposal, the NSF granted Garcia and her team nearly $1.5 million to fund PURE Math from 2011 – 2015. The program also received additional grants through the National Security Agency. “To have someone believe in the importance and purpose of this project was huge for me,” she reflected.

Garcia and her colleagues ran the program for five summers. One of the goals of the programs was to provide undergraduates with the same opportunities she herself had received as an undergraduate and to connect the participants through a lasting community of mentors and peers. She also wanted the participants to know first-hand that they could succeed in an intense academic environment by building their own communities, even if far from home. “Leaving the island, you’ll be okay,” she reflected. “You can survive with the community you’re going to create.”  

Throughout her pathway to where she is now, Garcia has had many mentors supporting her. While in high school, her first mentors were her inspirational chemistry teacher Lilee Cuff and her beloved trig teacher, Melvin Perry (dec). While an undergraduate, Garcia was nurtured by many of the mathematics faculty at LMU, most notably Herbert Medina, Jacqueline Dewar, and Michael Cullen (dec). As a PhD student at New Mexico State University, she received initial guidance from Reinhard Laubenbacher, and later, from her advisor Irena Swanson, who was there for Garcia as she ”worked day and night” to finish her dissertation while nursing her newborn daughter, supporting her mother and sister with special needs, and relocating to her new position at Sam Houston State University in 2004. 

Today, Garcia is a professor of Mathematics at Sam Houston State University in Texas. She is also one of the five co-directors of the commended Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP) and the principal investigator for the Mathematical Association of America National Research Experience for Undergraduates Program (MAA NREUP). Garcia has loved math since she was a child, and credits her interest to her father. Though he wasn’t formally trained, he was drafted into the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and worked in surveying, mapping, construction of barracks and landing strips, etc…, learning mathematics on the job. Garcia is Chamorro and grew up in Guam, a U.S. territory in the Northern Mariana Islands. This identity has played an important role in her life’s work and dedication to fellow Pacific Islanders. In addition to her academic career, Garcia enjoys spending time with her family: her husband and colleague Luis David and her three treasured daughters Claudia, Chiara, and Callista. She also delights in tinkering on the piano and experimenting in the kitchen. 

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Author Bio: Abaki Beck (Blackfeet and Red River Métis) is a freelance writer and public health researcher passionate about health equity in Native communities, particularly for justice-involved community members. She earned her Master’s in Public Health in 2020 and grew up in Montana. 

This article is supported by the generous support of the Tensor SUMMA Grant! Thank you!