Oscar Leong '16 Perseveres, Surpasses Academic Challenges

Oscar Leong '16

Los Angeles Times: Summer programs help prepare minority students for college STEM

When Oscar Leong '16 graduated from his Los Angeles high school four years ago, he ranked second in his class, with a 4.4 GPA and a scholarship to Swarthmore College, where he planned to major in astrophysics.

But Leong, the son of Mexican immigrants, struggled his freshman year, working the hardest he’d ever worked to earn just a B- in introductory physics.

His confidence shaken, Leong began to wonder if he was really cut out for Swarthmore. He considered transferring, or at least dropping his major.

“I told myself, ‘I’m not as smart as I thought I was,’” he said.

Leong’s experience reflects a troubling reality in American higher education: Despite the strong emphasis in recent years on encouraging students to pursue science and technology fields, little progress has been made to change the makeup of those receiving college and graduate degrees in those fields.

Leong was consumed with self-doubt after those early physics courses at Swarthmore. But he did well in calculus. That got the attention of math professor Cheryl Grood, who encouraged him to consider a math major and to apply for research opportunities at Swarthmore, where she offered to supervise him.

Leong took Grood’s advice, eventually winning an award at a national research conference for Latino and Native American scientists. Standing in a room full of successful minority students was “kind of eye-opening,” Leong said, and introduced him to the possibility of a career in math.

Later this month, Leong will begin a Ph.D. program in applied math at Rice University. He said he expects it will be challenging but, unlike his first year at Swarthmore, he doesn’t anticipate having any thoughts of dropping out.

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Leong graduated from Swarthmore College in 2016 with a major in mathematics. As a student, he was a Philip Evans Scholar, which allowed him to study in Hungary at the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics - an experience he describes as "transformative."