Schenectady

Outlook 2021: Scientist applying personal, professional experience to help lift local students in Schenectady

Omayra Padilla DeJesus
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Omayra Padilla DeJesus

When Omayra Padilla DeJesús moved to the Capital Region to work at General Electric in Niskayuna, she quickly realized she was existing in a bubble.

“While I was at this global facility that had great resources, super-smart people, it didn’t take long to learn, just a few blocks away, was a city called Schenectady,” Padilla DeJesús recounted. “There was a wall — not a physical wall — but there was a wall, and you just had to cross it and there was a completely different experience.”

The poverty prevalent in downtown Schenectady was shocking to Padilla DeJesús. It also hit close to home. She grew up in a low-income family in Puerto Rico. Her parents, who had just an eighth-grade education, lacked the know-how and resources to guide her to a successful career path.

Padilla DeJesús credits a science-based program for low-income high schoolers with setting her on a positive track. Schenectady’s underserved youth could benefit from such a program too, she realized. So she set about to create one. Her desire to help break Schenectady’s cycle of poverty also led her to become a volunteer with The Schenectady Foundation.

Padilla DeJesús earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico and a Ph.D. in that same field of study from the University of California, Berkeley. In 2003, she joined GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna to work on health care and biotechnology programs.

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In May of 2009, she proposed creating a GE-sponsored Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program for Schenecty’s low-income high schoolers. Officials agreed, and the Inspire program launched that fall. In 2010, it earned the GE Global Impact Award in Education.

“These kids, all they need is the opportunities,” Padilla DeJesús said. “They’re smart, they’re capable, they’re driven. Their own life experience makes them so much wiser.”

STEM opens doors

Inspire’s success made Padilla DeJesús eager to reach more students, including younger ones. In that pursuit, she left her career as a scientist and in 2017, with major financial backing from the Little Family Foundation, helped establish Rise High, where she serves as executive director.

The program, which presently serves about 60 Schenectady students ranging from seventh to ninth grade, is designed to expose youth to a variety of STEM concepts while connecting those experiences to real-world applications and careers in STEM fields. Offered free of charge, the program is open to Schenectady students with an interest in STEM subjects who have limited access to financial, social, mentorship or enrichment opportunities, or to academic or professional support resources.

Padilla DeJesús said her goal as executive director is to open doors for students who might otherwise have difficulty accessing opportunities that can set them on a positive career path.

“I want to be the convener of opportunities for them to go and utilize their talents, develop their talents to their full potential and do things they never imagined,” she said. “If you have the aptitude and if you have the attitude, and you have the talent for science, I don’t want to lose you. I want to guide you.”

Rise High accomplishes much of its mission by removing barriers. Students may lack transportation to programs, so the organization offers it free of charge. They may lack relevant social connections and role models, so Rise High provides networking opportunities. There may be communication and technology barriers. The organization works to address those as well.

The pandemic has brought added challenges to Padilla DeJesús’ work. Rise High’s education model is based on in-person experiences, which ordinarily take place at SUNY Schenectady County Community College and Clarkson University’s Capital Region campus. There are typically field trips included with the course as well. But due to COVID-19 precautions, the organization currently offers all of its services virtually.

Virtual learning is a challenge for many Rise High students, Padilla DeJesús said. Often they live in crowded spaces and don’t have a quiet place to complete their studies. They may not have consistent access to a computer or the internet. COVID-related restrictions have also deprived them of in-person social interactions.

“We have stayed committed and done everything in our power to continue providing that connectivity and the learning experiences and the interaction with mentors,” she said. “It has been a lot of work, but we’re very proud that we’ve been able to still do that.” What students learn at Rise High will serve them well no matter what career path they choose, said Padilla DeJesús.

“Science is about learning to feel comfortable with failure. Science is about trying over and over and over. Science is about looking at a problem, and looking at it from different angles and trying to find new solutions. It’s about creativity. Those are lessons that will apply to everything in life,” she explained.

Padilla DeJesús said her students inspire her, teach her things and give her hope for the future.

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“This is a generation that is growing by seeing a lot of sad realities, but they’re growing with purpose. They’re growing with passion and they’re very smart. They’re learning technology in ways that we would not have imagined and they’re going to apply it in ways that are more effective than the way we do it. So it brings me a lot of hope. This is going to be a very special generation.”

‘Feet on the ground’

Padilla DeJesús is also helping to break the cycle of poverty in Schenectady by volunteering with The Schenectady Foundation, a charitable trust that works to better the health and well-being of people who live and work in Schenectady County. She was recently named chair of the organization’s distribution committee, which evaluates grant proposals and allocates resources to projects aimed at helping to alleviate some of the city’s most serious problems, including food insecurity, neighborhood blight and disconnected youth.

She said she brings experiences to the table that can help advance the foundation’s mission.

“I can relate to the community that they’re serving,” she said. “I’m not someone that knows about them. I’m someone that feels I was one of them, and that makes a big difference. … There are challenges in the community of Schenectady that I also grew up surrounded by. Very close to me, I saw the impact of drug addiction and other things, so this is not something that I have just heard or read about. It’s something that has touched me directly.”

Padilla DeJesús said that as a person of color, she can also relate to the community the foundation serves.

“I myself have tasted the bitterness of being profiled just because of my look and accent, so I understand that anger,” she said. “Also, as a first-generation [resident] here in the States, I have tasted the kind of under-the-breath comment of ‘You’re here because you were given freebies.’ No, I am here because I worked really hard. So I understand that feeling, and I think I am in a position to speak to people like me and give them advice on how to approach that in a way that they will be effective.”

She said her professional experience as a scientist is an asset because it has made her comfortable with risk-taking, which can lead to new and better solutions.

A mother of twin 5-year-olds and a teenager, Padilla DeJesús also brings insight into the world of parenting. She is a full-time working mom and also cares for her immunocompromised mother.

“I think I bring a lot to the table that is not just about the challenges of what needs to be done, but the challenges of actual execution. My feet are on the ground. I’m actually in the community having to work day by day.”

Be an impactful volunteer

Rise High has volunteer opportunities for educators, mentors, instructors, facilities support assistants and meal coordinators. Executive Director Omayra Padilla DeJesús offers guidance for being an impactful volunteer for Rise High or any community service organization:

Show up

You gain trust and get people to listen when you demonstrate that you’re committed.

Be consistent

Choose a cause close to your heart and stick with it. Both you and the organization will get more out of it that way.

Get out of your comfort zone

You’re not always going to know exactly what to do. That’s OK. There are different rules out there and different reasons why people do the things they do. So come with a humble spirit, willing to learn.

Bring lots of faith

You won’t always see the outcome of your efforts.

You have to believe that long-term, there is going to be a positive effect.

For information about Rise High, visit https://rise-high.org. To inquire about volunteering, email [email protected]

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One Comment

Schenectady Foundation

Omayra is an inspiration! A passionate, smart, outcomes-minded leader who understands the tremendous potential in our youth, and how to unlock it. We are honored as The Schenectady Foundation to have her as our volunteer leader.

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