Bringing more voices to the table with FilSTEM

Edited by Jasmine Ryu Won Kang

I recently got the chance to sit down with Alexandra A, the co-founder of FilSTEM. She is a fourth-year undergraduate student, studying biology for Health Sciences and Psychology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga.

While she's not busy studying or planning events for FilSTEM, she is the VP of events at the UTM STEM Fellowship and a Research Trainee in the fields of infectious diseases and clinical parasitology. She is also a general member of the Filipino Student Association for UTSG and UTM campuses. Most of her extracurriculars revolve around building community and mentoring younger members of these communities. They also provide a space to explore and understand her cultural roots.

She co-founded FilSTEM with other members of her family to improve the Filipino/a/x representation in STEM and provide support for people who wish to pursue the field.

What was your inspiration behind FilSTEM?

FilSTEM was established in May 2020, in the middle of a pandemic. It aimed to address to main concerns Alexa herself had faced - the lack of Filipino/a/x representation in academia and the need for a supportive community during one's undergraduate years.

The lack of representation in academia not only causes one to question their place in the field but also fuels a lack of mentorship. When one doesn't see people like them as professors or supervisors, it is hard to find people who went through similar experiences and can guide them.

In a collaborative and interdisciplinary field like STEM, having a supportive community of friends and mentors is vital as they help one succeed. Alexa recognized the people who had helped her so far and wanted to provide similar mentorship for students.

Furthermore, the lack of representation leads to a lack of specific funds to help students. The club demonstrates this lack and works to combat it by reaching out to sponsors who can help provide financial aid.

Why does FilSTEM aim to help high-school students explore STEM fields?

High-school students are curious and are open to exploring different fields of study. They also pick up various skills through that 40 hours or the community service hours, joining clubs or even just taking STEM courses. By organizing these events and providing outreach opportunities, they can prepare for school and life in general. Having STEM-related activities also help them stand out on their university applications.

Your club started in the middle of a pandemic. How do you think this has impacted your outreach?

The shift to online has been a blessing in disguise as we don't need to worry about finding venues, catering food, and transportation.

Although in-person events do make people feel more connected, online events have provided more comfort and reach more people. In their past events, the attendees were high school students from all across Canada who might not have been able to make it if it was in-person.

A major issue with global outreach is navigating time-zones. Finding a time-zone that fits all the attendees is tricky. There are also issues with picking a platform that is user-friendly and easy for everyone to access.

Do you think that the lack of financial aid can result in Filipino/a/x students choosing more "stable" paths that lead to well-paying jobs? UofT is an international school and brings in students from across the world with various cultural backgrounds.

When you consider students who come in from the Philippines, a country that is considered to be low-income, it could influence a student's choice. But it varies a lot for each individual, their life experiences, passions, and financial situation.

The financial barriers are what stop people from achieving their goals. Couple this with the generational gap of elders wanting their children to pursue safe and "stable" jobs, which results in students lowering their standards and work towards stereotypical jobs a Filipino/a/x takes. They are known to be caregivers, nurses, and teachers internationally.

However, universities are starting to improve on their mental health resources and financial support. This would be the time for Filipino/a/x students to take advantage of these resources and work towards achieving their STEM careers or research.

FilSTEM works towards increasing the representation of filipino/a/x in STEM but true inclusivity starts when everyone at the table listens to each other and encourages one another. How do you think FilSTEM can work towards more inclusivity?

The main mission of FilSTEM is to encourage Filipino/a/xs in STEM careers and research. What's great about clubs like these that work to improve representation is that they have unique team members with diverse and unique knowledge and experiences. They bring interdisciplinary skills and inclusivity to the organization.

Clubs that aim to improve the representation of minorities create this safe space for people of one ethnicity to connect and discuss common issues on challenges/barriers they face while working towards their goals.

In terms of creating dialogue among larger communities, FilSTEM aims for global outreach with people in STEM. This would inspire students to contribute to the field and network with professionals.

Furthermore, when these clubs collaborate and organize events, they create a powerhouse of visible minority groups and encourage conversations on representation and inclusivity.

STEM is such a broad umbrella term for so many fields. There's also a massive difference between people who are research-oriented and work-oriented so that does impact the extracurriculars and experiences they chose to pursue. How does FilSTEM plan to educate students on these various fields?

FilSTEM is still new. A lot of events are being planned for the future. The events can be split into three broad categories: informational sessions, panel discussions, and interactive workshops. Since each member has a unique background, they can help plan out events from their experiences and showcase all the fields.

Do you have any advice for people who want to help improve representation and inclusivity?

Join clubs or organizations that work towards representation. If there isn't one at your university/school, start one and build a supportive community. Engaging in events and conferences with people from other minorities and learning from them is a great start.

Check out FilSTEM here: website facebook instagram