When Erika Arias graduates in 2018, she will be leaving not just with an SB in biology, but with a clear sense of mission. “I want to go into medicine, where I hope to work with immigrants and minorities,” says Arias.
The daughter of immigrants, Arias credits her experiences at MIT—especially in Global Studies and Language (GSL) classes, and service-based extracurricular activities—for igniting her interests and giving shape to her goals.
“Being at MIT made me realize what I came from, and how important it was to connect with my heritage,” she says. “I learned I wanted to break down boundaries, not just with my own family, but with other immigrants to this country.”
Arias, the recipient of the 2017 Global Studies and Languages Award for Excellence, arrived at MIT intent on pursing both science and languages. With a Mexican-born father and Japanese-born mother, she grew up speaking the one language the family shared in common: English. Although she studied Spanish in grade school, and took some Japanese classes on the weekends, she felt she never fully connected with her parents.
“It was frustrating not having the ability to communicate with my family,” she says. “There was so much knowledge and culture that I couldn’t tap; it was like looking at something through a window and not being able to touch it.”
So at MIT, Arias set out on an intensive journey of Spanish and Japanese language and culture acquisition, taking 11 courses by the end of her junior year, and sending her well on the way to earning a minor in Spanish. She found her experiences in GSL classes transformative.
In her very first class, 21G.084 Introduction to Latin American Studies, Arias was able to gain perspective on Mexico and her father’s experience. “We talked about the experience of migrants from Hispanic America to the United States, which was very personal to me,” she says. The class debated US immigration policies, and “talked about the question not just from an economic but a humanistic perspective, focusing on the fact that people who come are seeking refuge.”
For a final class paper, Arias “tapped into her dad’s experience,” she says. It was a rare opportunity for her. “My dad doesn’t talk about when he came here, or what it was like for him.”
Catalyzed by this and other classes, as well as her own family’s experience, Arias began volunteering for MIT’s English as a Second Language program, tutoring night-working facilities employees. “People sometimes have a bad perspective on those doing menial labor, but my aunt cleans houses, my uncle sweeps factory floors, and my dad was a busboy for a long time,” Arias says.
Once a week, Arias met with an employee from for an hour at 11 pm, at the end of her day, and before the employee began a night shift. “These people have struggled in ways you can’t possibly understand and just learning about what they have come through is humbling,” she says.
Arias has tutored a native Russian speaker, and a man from El Salvador, who taught her to make pupusas, a traditional dumpling dish. “All of them really care about their education, and are taking the time to learn something incredibly challenging,” she says.
“GSL inspired me to be a certain kind of teacher,” she says. “The department cares about students, they get to know you and care about how your life is going,” she says.
Arias has focused not just on learning languages, but on areas of special interest, such as 21G.065 Japanese Literature and Cinema and 21G.715 Topics in Medicine and Public Heath in the Hispanic World. For the latter class, she says, “we designed a game demonstrating the difficulties Hispanic people from other countries face in getting health care in the states.”
For Arias, matters of medical access hit home. “My aunt and uncle, who don’t speak English, got sick recently, and I heard their stories about needing strong advocates to get the right kind of care,’ she says. When she shadowed a physician in Massachusetts General Hospital, she noticed that it takes longer to communicate through a translator, and that “doctors lose a little connection with the patient.”
Because of her experiences at MIT, and her own family background, Arias has determined to merge her foreign language skills, her concern for underserved and often vulnerable communities, and her medical interests. “I want to be a doctor in a diverse community where people may not have access to health care,” she says.
She also hopes to engage in biomedical research, after enjoying her experiences in the Yilmaz Lab at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, where she studied the effects of high fat diets on mammalian stem cells.
With the skills she has developed in the lab, and through her many GSL classes, Arias is enthusiastically embarking on the first phase of her lifelong plan. She is going to work at Techno Monterrey, a Mexican science institute, on stem cells. “At first it was a tough decision to leave the country for research, to get out of the MIT bubble,” says Arias. “But GSL made me feel prepared to communicate with people in Spanish, and gave me the confidence I needed to say, ‘It’s a good idea to go somewhere else.”
With a year to go before she graduates, Arias plans on refining her language skills in both Spanish and Japanese. She managed a solo trip to Japan last year, met up with her mother’s family, and she says, “survived speaking just Japanese.” No matter what precise area of health, research, or medicine she lands on, Arias “definitely wants to be working with other cultures, whether immigrants or minorities,” she says. “I didn’t realize until I came to MIT how precious this is to me, and I know it’s something I want to keep alive over time.”