Minorities Take On Museums
An interview with Brenda G., Teen Collections Intern
Many people find studying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) or working in a science institution intimidating, but a whole other layer is added when you’re one of the first in your family to do it. I sat down with collections intern Brenda Galan to discuss her experience at Adler this summer.
So you’re here through the Young Ambassadors Program sponsored by the Smithsonian, can you tell me a bit about that?
The program is for graduating high school seniors who have an interest in the sciences, humanities, and the arts as they pertain to the Latino identity. They choose a cohort of about 20 people, fly you out to Washington, D.C. for a professional development week, and connect you to a museum in your city (17 cities across the U.S. and Puerto Rico) for a four-week long internship. Washington Week helps you navigate the real world while exploring your Latinidad and narrative more deeply. You become part of the YAP familia through the Smithsonian Latino Center and continue to make connections after the program ends through networking.
What obstacles have you faced during your time at Adler and the Smithsonian?
During Washington Week, we were tasked with designing a program to be included in the Smithsonian Latino Gallery. Executing a well thought out project as a cohort with very little time was difficult. My first week at the Adler came with lots of “surreal,” moments. I just had to remind myself that this was real and I deserved this internship. Prior to my internship, Adler wasn’t really a place I visited because I didn’t think I’d connect with it. Coming in here and not knowing the culture and environment was really difficult, and knowing that I’m coming from a community that’s not like what you see in downtown Chicago has probably been the most difficult thing. I just have to keep reminding myself that even though it’s very different, I deserve to be here.
Have you solidified your sense of belonging here at Adler?
I have. When I started, I felt incompetent, but those feelings have calmed down because my supervisors are more than willing to let me work on a project that’s really meaningful to me, which was really affirming. They even set up an interview with Ellen Ochoa. Just researching women like her and other Latinos who have contributed to amazing institutions like the Adler has been assuring. Yes, you’re going to meet a lot of adversity and go through a lot of roadblocks, but you just have to be open-minded and reach out to people.
What did you take away from your interview with Ellen Ochoa?
I would say that the biggest takeaways from that experience would be that there is no limit to what you can do. A lot of what I talked to her about was representation and not feeling like you’re good enough for a certain thing. In the past, I always wanted to do something with STEM, but I felt incompetent. I was like, “No. I can’t do this. There are zero people who look like me, I can’t do that.” But talking to her, something that stood out to me was how much importance she placed on networking. You just have to reach out to people, and yes there will be people who don’t look like you, but that doesn’t mean they won’t want to help you.
What advice can you give to your peers and those younger than you about navigating spaces you feel like you don’t belong in or may be interested in entering the field of STEM?
Practice self-affirmation. Remind yourself of your accomplishments and the things you bring to the table that no one else does. I know that’s cheesy, but it’s so important.
Also, learn from your mistakes, it doesn’t matter if you fail. You might feel pressured to be an inspiration or be the first or pave the way for others, but just by being there you’re breaking down barriers. Try to be at ease with that.
You mentioned this pressure to be the first or to be an inspiration. Where do you think this pressure comes from?
A lot of that pressure comes from being first-generation. There’s this feeling that’s like, “Oh shoot, it’s not just my family who’s looking up to me; it’s people from my community.” You don’t want to fail them. That’s a lot of pressure. I feel like every little thing that I do causes a domino effect.
You’re heading off to college as a first-generation student. What do you think will be your biggest takeaways from this experience as you continue to navigate through spaces that weren’t necessarily intended for you?
Working at the Adler is a big deal, and this experience has been humbling and has helped me validate my worth and serve as a way to remind me that “Hey, I do belong in these spaces.” I think it will also help me navigate culture shock because I’ve been exposed to it already. I guess I’ve kind of been given a leg up.