Stories

Susan Rivera

Susan Rivera

Growing up in the industrial city of Gary, Indiana, Susan Rivera never dreamed that she would one day head a neuroscience lab researching cognitive development. “College was always part of my plan,” she says, “but as a means to an end. All you think about when you’re growing up poor is having a solid job.”

Rivera’s parents had migrated to Gary from Puerto Rico so her father could work in the steel mills. The youngest of thirteen children, her family was loving and happy, but there was no money to spare, and no guidance for getting into college. “I had to do that on my own, and I was a little clueless,” she says. Fortunately, she ended up attending Indiana University – Bloomington, a top public research university. Read more...

Milmon Harrison

Milmon Harrison in a colorful speech bubble

From the principal’s office to a successful dance career to a seven-year college journey, Milmon Harrison’s path to being a professor was full of the unexpected. A New Orleans native, he grew up in Hunter’s Point and the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco before moving to Stockton and attending middle and high school in Lodi. That I would end up being a professor is so weird to me because even though I was a smart kid, I didn’t always do well in school. I was easily bored and would always talk to my friends. There were a few years it seems like I spent the whole year in the principal’s office.” 

In high school, Harrison ran track and ran hurdles – which is how, at age 16, he discovered ballet as a way to train off-season. Dance became his passion, and after graduating high school and briefly attending community college, he returned to San Francisco and his career took off: he danced in a tv commercial and performed in LA, New York, and Munich. And then, right after dancing in the 1984 Olympics, just before getting a callback for a Broadway show, he tore the cartilage in his leg and his dance career was over.  Read more...

Julie Sze

Julie Sze

JULIE SZE grew up in New York City’s Chinatown, where her father worked in the restaurant industry after emigrating from China. She attended a “striving immigrant school” oriented toward success in math and science, and was expected to go to college in preparation for a professional career. “This is very typical for a working class Asian immigrant family– it’s tied to the narrative of the American dream.”

But what she loved was reading books, and at Berkeley, she majored in English. “I had no idea I was studying with professors who were well known, who were top in their field,” she says. And then she took a big GE ethnic studies lecture course with Professor Ron Takaki, and “my mind was blown.” (Takaki himself was a first-generation college student who went on to have a foundational role in ethnic studies at Berkeley.) Read more...

John Terning

John Terning

PHYSICS Professor John Terning grew up in Canada, the son of parents who emigrated from a small town in Norway where an eighth-grade education was the norm. His parents expected him to make the most of the free higher education offered by their adopted home country. Terning attended University of Alberta, which “was big, and I was from a small town, and there were lots of incredibly smart people, and I was terrified of all the professors.” Gradually, he started going to talk to his professors and discovered that in one-on- one conversations they were not the intimidating people they seemed to be in class. Read more...