Commencement Stories — Jennifer Madrigal

Biochemistry graduate doesn’t allow being a mother stop her from going after her dreams

Jennifer Madrigal

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — If you would have told Jennifer Madrigal when she younger that she would one day love math enough to pursue her dream of getting a degree, or two, in science she would have thought you were crazy.

“At a young age, I believed all the stereotypes out there of women not being good at math and science. I simply thought my brain wasn’t wired for it, so as of middle school I convinced myself that I could never do well in those subjects,” Madrigal said.

But, in June, she will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Riverside, and will be heading to Utah for graduate school.

Originally from the Riverside area, Madrigal moved to Utah with her family at 16. She knew she wanted to come back to California, and attend a UC, but after high school, she decided against getting a degree and its associated debt.

“I moved back to California after finishing high school, enrolled in Riverside City College (RCC), and just took up odd jobs. I was a sign-twirler, I worked at Subway, later with the RCC Foundation,” Madrigal said.

At the same time, she was in an abusive relationship. After getting a job offer for a sales position in Washington, she and her partner moved there. Though the position paid well, and the cost of living was much more affordable in Washington, Madrigal wasn’t fulfilled. The recession hit, and the team of 24 at the company was cut to six. The work became too much, and tied in with everything else, Madrigal moved back to California.

“I just felt like I didn’t have direction. My ex was manipulative, my self-esteem had taken a big hit, financially I wasn’t on solid ground; it was certainly a low-point. It was really bad,” Madrigal said.

Madrigal with her husband and two children.

She started seeing a behavioral psychologist, who helped open her eyes to the abuse and manipulation in the relationship. Soon after, she found cheap rent and moved into a home, left her partner, and enrolled in community college. She started working at a citrus packing plant, and there met her now-husband. She was still going to school off and on because, financially, she needed to work. While taking courses at RCC, she fell in love with math and science and decided that was the route she wanted to pursue.

In 2013, she decided it was finally time to apply to UCR. “I was fortunate enough that my husband said he would be able to financially support us, so I could focus on school full-time.” Madrigal was accepted, just as she found out she was pregnant — a total surprise. “We wanted to have children, but weren’t exactly planning on having them right at the moment,” she said.

She wanted to enroll in a summer research program through the CNAS Summer Bridge to Research Program, which is geared toward Hispanic and/or low-income transfer students. But, she was worried about how professors and researchers would respond to her pregnancy. Madrigal feared that she would be viewed as a liability. Who would want to take on a pregnant student?

Fortunately, not only was she able to partake in research with biochemistry professor Jikui Song, but when she gave birth six weeks before the school year began, professors were all very kind and understanding of her situation. She brought her son, Otto, in every day that first quarter.

That quarter, her grades were strong enough for her to enroll in Tau Sigma, an honors society. That summer she also began working in a lab with Chia-en Chang, and applied for a peer mentorship role with the STEM Connections Program. Madrigal said the program gave her a lot of support.

Madrigal became pregnant again. This time it was a planned pregnancy, and she gave birth to her second son, Iker, in summer 2016. Knowing how difficult it would be to balance two children and school, she took the Fall 2016 quarter off, but that also meant no financial aid. So, her family of four had to solely rely on her husband’s income.

“Money was very tight. The R’Pantry saved our lives,” Madrigal said. “Without the food, and being able to pick up some of our necessities there, for free, I don’t know how we would have survived.”

Madrigal’s husband not only works full-time, but he also does side work like repairing cars to help make ends meet.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel now,” she said. “We worked so hard and sacrificed so much, so I could go back to school. And, now I’m graduating in June, and then heading to Utah so I could get my Ph.D. And now that I will have tuition covered, and make some money as a graduate student, I told my husband he can go to school, and follow his dream of one day opening and owning his own mechanic shop.”

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