The Value of STEM: Heroic Women Who Inspired My Social Science

The Value of STEM: Heroic Women Who Inspired My Social Science

Continuing our Role Models series, STEM Women team member and sociologist Dr Zuleyka Zevallos shares how her primary school teachers and a series of children’s books inspired her scientific imagination. Reading stories of heroic women who used education and science to improve social justice helped Zuleyka see that girls, including those from minority groups who are denied rights, can and do make a positive impact on society.

Zuleyka Zevallos, PhDThe story of why I became interested in STEM starts when I migrated to Australia from Peru. I hadn’t yet turned eight and I didn’t speak any English. Thankfully, as luck would have it, we were enrolled into a highly progressive multicultural school in the inner city of Melbourne. My teachers, Mrs Rosa in Grade 3 and Miss Maria in Grade 4, worked hard to make non-English-speaking children like me feel included.

My teachers were amazing, celebrating every little task I mastered: from writing my first English sentence, to reading aloud to the class, to progressing through maths exercises. Our teachers took time to ensure that I did not get left behind. They also assigned us a tutor for extra English lessons for the first three months of school. They would look me in the eye and encourage me when I got the right answer, and I can remember once they stopped the class to announce that I has written a great short story. With small and large gestures, they imbued me with the courage and motivation to keep learning despite the language barrier.

The Magic of Learning

Our family moved again, and we ended up at another wonderful school with an active multicultural program. Miss Alibrando would encourage us all to learn a new language each week, with a different student teaching the rest of us how to say good morning and good afternoon in their mother tongue. I can see now this was a clever way of teaching us to be accepting of diversity.

One of the strongest memories I’ll carry with me to the end is the day when we showed up to class and Miss Alibrando surprised us by handing us a big booklet with different creative exercises in English, Maths, Science, and Art. She said: “You have two weeks. I trust you to finish these in whatever order you want.” She explained that education was about being creative and responsible. I’d never been given so much freedom! That fortnight, I discovered how to plan and manage my workload in a way that made me fall in love with learning in so many new ways. I told a friend about this years later. She’s also a teacher. She said wistfully, “It’s the magic of learning!

While I was a strong student in Peru, I can see that under different circumstances, I might have become shy after arriving in Australia. I’m grateful to have had teachers who were enthusiastic and inventive, actively helping all of us to embrace our old and new cultures through presentations and other class activities. We were taught to be proud to be bilingual, multicultural, and multi-religious. Mrs Rosa, Miss Maria and Miss Alibrando, all women of Australian-migrant backgrounds, are my first STEM heroines.

The Value of STEM

We had an equally wonderful school library in that first school that also focused on diversity. It was small, but it was filled with books craftily inviting students to explore other cultures. I would not learn the words “sociology” or “social science” until I entered University more than a decade later. Yet even as a child, I was attracted to books about social scientists and explorers venturing into other societies with the aim of improving the world. Some of my favourite books were the Value Tales series, which featured strong women (and men) scientists and leaders.

Each book was focused on different humanitarian themes: The Value of Determination, The Value of Learning, The Value of Helping, and so on. Among them were books on the sociologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, as well as anthropologist and activist Margaret Mead. The books also depicted other scientists and activists who would also become my childhood heroines: African-American abolitionist and suffragist Harriet Tubman; as well as educator, suffragist and Bachelor of Arts recipient Hellen Keller. I’ve included images of the books below so you can see some of the other inspiring women from the series.

As a trained sociologist, I can now recognise some issues with these books, such as some historical and cultural inaccuracies. Still, I have such fond memories of reading these books. They taught me the value and excitement of STEM. They represented the idea that women can overcome adversity and defy narrow social conventions. These books became extra special not simply because they celebrated education, but specifically because to me, they symbolised how all the things I loved learning about at school had real-world applications. I could see that you can use science to make a difference in society.

These books awakened in me a sense of scientific curiosity and a profound wonder about other cultures. Most of all, they stirred in me the desire to pursue social justice. These books and the others I read at the time addressed the fact that women were not always free to pursue science and adventure. I felt that I could not take my freedoms for granted and I wanted to work to support social change.

The Value of Inclusion

My early education experiences, coupled with the picture storybooks I read about women scientists were formative in my love for STEM. I attended other schools after my family finally settled in the outer Western suburbs of Melbourne. Most of these schools were not as proactive as those first two schools I attended. In fact, from the age of 11 onwards, I faced many demoralising experiences with racist abuse. Kids followed me home yelling racial insults; my fellow students regularly hurled racial slurs and tried to shame me about my appearance and my cultural heritage. Even some of the teachers made fun of my name and were actively antagonistic towards me, even while I was getting good grades.

Without the inclusive and flexible approach to learning early on, I doubt I would have gotten to where I am today.

The Value of Equality

Ever since I could speak, before I even learned to write properly, I remember clearly wanting to be a story-teller. I went to university thinking I would pursue literature, but I found I did not enjoy the course. Instead I followed my early love of social studies. I enrolled in sociology in my first semester of university in 1997. This was supposed to be an elective. Seventeen years later, here I am: a passionate sociologist.

I would eventually go on to write both my Honours and PhD theses on themes of multiculturalism, racism, and social inclusion. I studied how young migrant-Australian women managed their identities, gender inequality, and other issues such as sexuality and culture. Over the years, I have continued to teach, research and write about gender issues, social justice and equality in the sciences. I am committed to supporting women in STEM because even though the Value Tales looked at historical oppression, inequality between genders exists today. Things are much improved, but not as much as they should be.

For me, the value of STEM is that these professions offer us concrete ways of re-imagining the world, and they provide us with the tools to forge progressive social change.


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