Emily Garcia, BS IEOR '20

In high school, Emily Garcia (BS IEOR ’20) received excellent grades, participated in numerous extracurricular activities, and was even class salutatorian in her senior year. Most other students with Emily’s academic performance are destined for college; however, for Emily, college was always an uncertain and distant dream.

“I grew up in a low-income Latino family. My parents didn’t go to college. When I was in high school, my counselors assumed I would not go to college either because I could not afford it.” Said Emily about her experience in high school.

She frequently experienced teachers and counselors doubting her abilities and prioritizing other students who better fit the mold of a typical college student. The possibility of college emerged one afternoon when Emily’s father was reading the local newspaper. He read an article to Emily about a Latina girl who won a full scholarship to college.

“I remember thinking, ‘I want to be like her and appear in the newspaper too. One day, I want to tell my parents that not only did I get into college, but I found a way to get it fully paid for so that my parents or I wouldn’t have to worry about loans or finances.’ All it took was seeing someone in the newspaper to show me it was possible.”

Emily’s hard work in high school culminated in accomplishing what had once seemed impossible – two full-ride scholarships to UC Berkeley. However, what should have been a joyous and celebratory milestone was overshadowed by her grandfather falling gravely ill.

“My grandfather was really sick, and I’m the oldest in my family. I could not leave my parents with all the caregiver responsibilities – they already worked so hard. I thought about staying home and attending a community college nearby instead.”

Emily’s scholarships presented an immense opportunity she couldn’t let slip away. However, caring for her grandfather was equally important to her. Emily decided to try juggling both. From Monday to Friday, she attended UC Berkeley, but on Fridays, Emily would take the BART train to the last stop: Fremont. From there, she took a bus bound for Milpitas. Finally, her father would pick her up at the Great Mall and drive for another hour and a half home. Weekends became devoted to her grandfather’s well-being, as Emily dutifully administered his medications, monitored his blood pressure or glucose, organized his appointments, and undertook various other essential tasks. The arduous cycle would come full circle when, at 2 or 3 am on Monday mornings, Emily’s father would drive her all the way back to Berkeley before driving himself to his own job.

Eventually, Emily’s schedule took a toll on her academic performance, “I realized I needed more support and sought to find a community at Berkeley instead of struggling alone to do so much.”

Emily decided to join Lambda Theta Alpha, a Latina sorority, and the Hispanic Engineers Society on campus. However, as she looked around Berkeley IEOR, Emily couldn’t help but notice only one other Latinx student in the entire department. 

Emily became determined to increase Latinx representation in the IEOR department, leading her to become the first-ever junior president of IISE, the largest industrial engineering student organization on campus. As president, she tirelessly engaged with prospective students, visiting high schools across California and participating in numerous recruitment events on campus for elementary and high school students, showing them that they could go to college and pursue a STEM degree. By the time she was a senior, Emily’s outreach efforts had resulted in a remarkable 250% increase in Latinx enrollment in the IEOR department. With Emily’s grades back on track and her newfound community, she started considering graduate school for a PhD.

“Growing up, I always wanted to be a doctor. But then, going through the caregiver role with my grandfather, I realized how much I don’t like seeing blood or delivering bad news to families in distress. But taking care of my grandfather also made me acutely aware of the challenges plaguing our healthcare system in the United States, especially for minorities and older adults. That’s when I knew I had picked the right major for me. Industrial engineering provided the ideal bridge to make a difference in the healthcare industry. I became determined to investigate ways to make long-term care for people like my grandfather more optimal.”

She knew she needed research experience to get into grad school, so she embarked on a summer undergraduate research fellowship (SURF) opportunity at Purdue University. Her SURF project focused on identifying risk factors associated with rehospitalizations among older adult nursing home residents to improve long-term care outcomes in Indiana.  Emily’s research findings earned her an invitation to present at INFORMS, a rare opportunity for an undergraduate student.

Through her participation in the SURF program, Emily forged meaningful connections with Purdue’s faculty members, who recognized her research potential and encouraged her to pursue graduate school. Despite the dip in her grades at the beginning of her journey at Berkeley, Emily persevered and was accepted into four of the five graduate schools she applied to. Ultimately, she chose Purdue, where she was awarded both an NSF fellowship and a Purdue Doctoral Fellowship.

At Purdue, Emily found herself in a similar position as when she was at Berkeley. There were hardly any engineering Latinx professors serving on the faculty, and there were no engineering student organizations representing the Latinx graduate student body.

“The lack of representation in my department made me go through imposter syndrome all over again, but I remembered that things could change with effort.”

Emily established the first graduate chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. She advocated for diversity and inclusion in mentoring for both faculty members and graduate students through a year-round seminar series that she developed for the Graduate School’s Mentoring Fellows Program. Additionally, she serves as a Purdue Engineering GradTrack mentor. Every year, she returns to her middle and high school to share her expertise and experiences with fellow students, inspiring them to pursue higher education. In recognition of her diversity and inclusion efforts for the IE department and the university as a whole, Emily received the prestigious 2022-23 Outstanding Graduate Student Award from Purdue.

“I am very passionate about inspiring youth from similar backgrounds as me, or who have faced similar challenges as I have, that they too can pursue higher education and thrive, especially in STEM disciplines. I believe my efforts pave the way for future generations of engineers because I envision a future where higher education becomes more diverse and inclusive not only in race or ethnicity but in skill and thought.’

Emily’s current research focuses on healthcare analytics and complex systems modeling in the context of hospital risk assessment and discharge decision-making. Specifically, she is examining the implementation and limitations of clinical decision support systems in hospitals, with a particular emphasis on reducing health disparities among older adults and optimizing the integration of these systems into doctors’ work performance.