Putting People First

Senior Carla Valdez ’21 takes a human-centered approach to economics and advocacy for first-gens in STEM

Carla Valdez ’21

Carla Valdez ’21 wrote her economics senior seminar paper about the effect of remittances—the money immigrants send back to their home country—on inflation in Guatemala, where her parents emigrated from before she was born.

Her adviser and senior seminar professor, Associate Professor of Economics Menna Bizuneh, asked her how she came up with the idea for the paper—it was a very macro concept, Bizuneh recalled, and Valdez hadn’t been in her macroeconomics class. Valdez responded that the premise struck her after observing cycles of poverty when she visited Guatemala.

That mix of macro and micro is “very Carla,” Bizuneh said.

“She approaches the application of economics on a very personal level,” Bizuneh said. “Carla’s way of thinking is always human-driven, human-focused—her solutions, her propositions, her inquisitions are always, ‘How does this affect the people? What about them?’”

Valdez, who will graduate from Pitzer on May 15 with a degree in mathematical economics, is the first in her family to go to college. After her parents immigrated to the US from Guatemala, they worked tirelessly to ensure Valdez could pursue her undergraduate degree.

“My mother sacrificed all she had to let me attend college, which has truly been a dream for everyone in my family,” she said.

Valdez is a two-time recipient of an Edison International STEM Scholarship, which supports Chicanx/Latinx students majoring in a STEM discipline. She is passionate about representing underrepresented students who are pursuing science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and related fields.

In the United States, Latinx, Asian, and Black American women receive less than 5 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees, according to a 2020 article in the International Journal of STEM Education. Valdez says Pitzer’s integration of its core values into the curriculum and school culture enabled her to explore “what it means to be a first-generation, low-income Latina student”—and what it means to be underrepresented in one’s area of academic interest.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed having conversations about the marginalization of students with similar backgrounds to me in STEM and empowering other students like me to continue pursuing these disciplines,” she said.

Valdez originally planned to concentrate on mathematics, captivated by the way the field breaks down and solves problems. Then she discovered a similar excitement as she learned new material in her economics courses.

“I started reading economics books on my own,” she said. “Soon enough, I realized that I could have a combined major bringing together two fields I am intrigued by, leading me to major in mathematical economics.”

Valdez says the way Pitzer professors incorporate real-world experiences into academic coursework encourages students to think critically, differently, and proactively.

“Pitzer College goes beyond teaching basic material in class and instead helps mold students into leaders,” she said.

In the future, Valdez sees herself as part of the burgeoning field of data science and is considering a master’s degree in statistics. She plans to draw on her personal, educational, and professional experience to encourage and mentor students with similar stories and aspirations.

“I hope I can participate in actively helping out my community and other first-generation Latinas who would like to go into a STEM field,” she said.

Whatever Valdez does, she will leave her footprint, according to Bizuneh.

“I do believe Carla could change the world. I don’t say that lightly. We’re going to feel her impact in society.”