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Winter 2017

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Adsum Scholarship Alum Co-Founds Non-Profit to Build STEM Education Access for Minorities

Engineer Luis Garfias `13 pays it forward with a new foundation providing student scholarships

By Marge Perko

Students working

In 2015, four young engineers wanted to make difference by starting a non-profit to help students from underrepresented minorities access STEM education, scholarship and opportunities.

One of the founding members of the Four Ingenieros Foundation is UCSB alum Luis Miguel Garfias `13 , whose experiences growing up as an undocumented student inspired him to join his friends Noe Gonzalez, Juan Zepeda and Neftali Aguilera in building an organization that would provide early access to STEM mentoring, scholarships and professional development. “We believe that minorities are and will be significantly key contributors and innovators in the STEM fields,” said Garfias. “The main objectives for the foundation is to involve and expose students at an earlier stage of their education, assist them not only in selecting their career STEM field but to actually earn their bachelor’s degree.”

Hard work and perseverance are values Garfias learned from his parents’ sacrifices to their children’s future in the United States. “A certain level of maturity came sooner than I expected since I was more conscious of the struggles all my family members were going through in order to adapt to a new culture,” he said. “My dad is a civil engineer in Mexico. Due to the lack of opportunity in the country my family decided to look for opportunities outside. In the United States, my dad works as a handyman while my mom works as a housekeeper. With their efforts, they were able to support my sister and I to obtain a higher education.”

Due to his family’s immigration status, Garfias did not have access to financial aid until his last quarter at UC Santa Barbara where he majored in mechanical engineering. Other limitations due to his undocumented status affected his ability to access important opportunities during his college years. “Back when I was an undergraduate, I did not have the opportunity to obtain paid internships or even be part of research groups that were funded by the NSF,” he said. “I always wanted to obtain that exposure to be in a lab and work with graduate students and professors.”

Having to pay for his tuition on his own put a big burden on Garfias. In 2010, he heard about the mission of the newly-launched Adsum Education Foundation, founded by Gauchos Maritza Meija-Wilson '02, Travis Wilson `02, Jonathan Wang `02 and UC Berkely alum Debra Roets. “I was thrilled that there was an organization in Santa Barbara that fundraised to assist AB 540 students in their academic journey,” he said. “Being awarded with the scholarship helped relieve my financial burden to pay for tuition and expand my network. Ever since, I built a great relationship with the Adsum’s board that believed in my potential.”

By providing AB 540 students financial support and opportunities, Adsum Education Foundation has helped empower hundreds of young professionals like Garfias to pursue their dreams. “Students were working so hard, and trying to build productive lives in the United States – we wanted to do whatever we could to support that,” said Adsum co-founder Maritza Meija-Wilson, who serves as the assistant director at the UCSB Orientation Programs & Parent Services. “It was especially important to Travis, Jon, and I that we try to give students a bit of the experience that we had been privileged enough to enjoy as students.  We had taken so much for granted, and we wanted to reward students who truly understand the value of education and were not going to waste any opportunity.”

In June 2012, a year before Garfias’ graduation from UC Santa Barbara, President Barack Obama signed the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an immigration policy that would have far-reaching benefits for millions of young people in the United States. The executive action allowed certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before 2007 to receive a renewable two-year exemption from deportation and a work permit. In March 2015, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) accepted 750,000 requests and granted DACA to over 665,000 indivduals.

“There was more access to apply for internships, research programs, work-study programs and financial aid,” said Garfias. “While the executive order is still in effect, it doesn’t guarantee that in future presidential terms, an undocumented student will be able to renew the 2-year legal stay or work permit.”

Students on a tour

Since last year, Four Ingenieros has raised thousands of dollars for student scholarships, sponsored their first-ever Engineering Competition for MESA, SHPE and SACNAS students at Santa Barbara City College and created a book grant for SBCC STEM majors. Garfias and his co-founders have also participated in mentoring and outreach at programs like the UCSB for EOPS Summer Institute program and SBCC MESA.

“I believe that if undocumented students take advantage of the opportunities offered and succeed in their academics, this will be the best proof that they are a great element for our society,” said Garfias.

Find out more the undocumented student experience at UC Santa Barbara in our special extended eCoastlines feature “Daring to Dream.”