In high school, Aries Contreras '22 was shopping with her mom in a grocery store when another shopper approached in a huff. This customer heard Contreras' mom speaking Spanish and made a racist comment: "Go back to Mexico."
For Contreras, who is Puerto Rican, this was merely the latest incident in a string of both subtle and overt racism she experienced as a child and young adult.
"Growing up, my mom always told me to be grateful that I don't have an accent when I speak English, like she does," Contreras says. "I've even been fired from a job because of how I looked."
After high school, Contreras entered Lehigh Carbon Community College near her hometown of Whitehall, Pa. While there, she was selected for the highly competitive Bucknell Community College Scholars Program, where high-achieving students are invited to spend six weeks at Bucknell over the summer.
Contreras thrived in the program, transferred to Bucknell in the fall of 2020 and will graduate in 2022 with a degree in psychology.
But that's just the beginning. In 2021, Contreras received a Beinecke Scholarship, which will award her $34,000 toward her pursuit of a Ph.D. in social psychology. Only 16 Beinecke Scholarships were awarded nationwide in 2021.
As Contreras reflects on her journey so far, she feels mixed emotions. There's a sense of justifiable pride, but it's paired with a lingering question: "Why me?"
"After the cycle of poverty that my family has experienced for generations, now, all of a sudden, I get to make it out," she says. "My mom likes to reinforce in me that I did earn it, but it still feels unfair. It feels like I'm leaving people behind."
And so she plans to use these hard-earned gifts to research ways to improve the lives of minority populations.
It will start with representation — doing what she can to get more people who look like her into academia. Throughout grade school and community college, Contreras didn't have a single class taught by a teacher or professor of color. As a kid, she remembers that even the shows on TV lacked representation.
"Nowadays, seeing cartoons where there's a little brown girl in it, it's like the biggest thing for me," she says. "I never had that growing up."
Contreras plans to become a professor, sharing what she's uncovered with the next generation — and becoming a role model herself. She plans to model her career not after a cartoon character but after someone who affected her in real life.
During her six-week summer in Lewisburg for the Bucknell Community College Scholars Program (BCCSP), Contreras took a class taught by Professor T. Joel Wade, psychology.
"He's one of the most incredible men I've ever met in my life," she says. "That was the first time I was taught by a professor of color — the first time I got to see myself represented in academia."
She remembers being fascinated by the class, which covered human attraction. She was even more impressed when one of the assignments was to analyze Wade's own published research.
"We'd go through, and criticize it, and come to class with questions," she says, "We just sat around in a circle and had discussions about his work."
Within social psychology, she's found her calling. She's developing the tools she'll need to give more people a chance.
"The BCCSP has changed my life in ways completely unimaginable," she says. "I want to find solutions that benefit everyone, not just specifically selected students who show promise. I want to find more opportunities and more ways for people to make it out."