Mateo Galeano, E18, grew up leading a double life. At his high-performing middle school in Flushing, Queens, he was “Mateo,” said with a hard “t”—a hardworking student who got the highest grades in class and believed in the power of education to shape one’s own life.
But at home, he was “Mateo,” spoken with a soft “t” and the accent of his native Colombia—at the time an undocumented immigrant, the son of an electrician and a house cleaner, living in Elmhurst, Queens, four miles away.
“I wasn’t going to be at school telling people I was undocumented, or that my family was very low income,” said Galeano, who didn’t identify himself as Latino to friends or teachers even after becoming a permanent resident his junior year of high school . “I never brought my personal life into school. It was always very separate.”
So when Galeano was accepted to Tufts—which he chose because of its strong reputation, generous financial aid package, and proximity to Boston University, his brother’s school—he was initially a reluctant participant in the Bridge to Engineering Success at Tufts (BEST) program, which offers academic support and community to incoming students, because he felt he was receiving help due to being a minority, and that he hadn’t truly been accepted to Tufts.
“I said I don’t want to be a Latino engineer. My success in high school hasn’t been because I’m Latino, it’s because I’ve worked hard,” said Galeano. “I don’t need this crutch,” he told a BEST staffer at the time.
Lacking the technical skills he needed, Galeano soon found himself struggling in his math and engineering classes. Although anxious to excel so he could repay his parents for their sacrifices, he couldn’t bring himself to ask his professors for help. “I felt I didn’t deserve the help. I felt I didn’t belong there,” said Galeano, who put on a brave face during phone calls home. “It felt very lonesome at times. I wished my mom was there to guide me, or my father to give me advice.”
But Galeano was able to turn to three friends he met whose parents were also Latino immigrants working low-income labor jobs, two of whom he met through BEST. They roomed together, went to the Spring Fling together, traveled over spring break—and talked. “We were motivated by the same things, coming from a low-income background. We had each other and we understood each other,” Galeano said.
Galeano began to explore race academically, taking a class called Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice at the Ex College, and doing a project on disparity in New York City school systems for his Geographic Information Systems (GIS) class. Color-coding school districts according to math and English Language Arts scores, and then race and income, Galeano found a strong correlation, and a more complicated understanding of the power and limitations of education. “I had always thought income and race were issues separate from education,” Galeano said. “Learning that all these systems are so intertwined—I just got mad.”
Anger gave way to passion, which Galeano channeled into activities that put his ethnicity front and center. He joined the a cappella group S Factor, which was comprised of mostly black students with some ethnic minority students and a few white students, celebrating the music of the African diaspora. He became a STEM Ambassador through the Center for STEM Diversity, presenting alongside other first-generation, low-income students of color at high schools with diverse student populations in Medford, Somerville, and Chinatown.
“The mission is to try to change the image of who is a doctor or an engineer,” Galeano said. “It doesn’t have to be a white guy in a coat—it can be someone who comes from your background, who’s chill, who understands you.”
Galeano eventually apologized to the BEST staff member he’d told off when he was a freshman, and they joked about how sure he’d been that he didn’t want to be involved with the program. “I was so arrogant,” he said with a laugh.
what I do.
I have to
His senior year, he met a BEST freshman named Derrick Sosa who had attended his Harlem high school, and began spending time with him. Although Sosa initially struggled with the same questions of identity that had challenged Galeano, he soon found his footing, and became a STEM ambassador, too. “He’s such a great person with so much potential,” Galeano said. “I’m just really proud of him for what he’s been able to accomplish his first year here.”
And this past spring, when Galeano couldn’t figure out an assignment for Intro to Hydraulic Engineering—a class he needed to graduate—he worked up his courage and emailed the professor. “I said I need help—I just really don’t know this,” Galeano said. The professor sat down with him and spent two hours explaining the concepts, which helped Galeano pass the course.
The idea of landing a salaried job is mind-boggling to him. “It’s very foreign in my family for someone to be getting a $60,000 or $70,000 yearly income. It’s kind of daunting, a little worrisome,” Galeano said. “But thinking about it, I don’t deserve whatever scraps are given to me, which is the mentality I had coming here.”
Galeano is now looking for an engineering job that will pave the way for a career in architecture, where he hopes to express his artistic side. “I have a civil engineering degree from Tufts University,” Galeano said. “I deserve to find a job that makes me happy, that also allows my mom to not work and just relax and chill and travel.”
As for his name, Galeano is now using its native pronunciation, no matter where he is. “When my parents were deciding my name, that’s how they said it, and that’s how I should say it. There’s no shame about it anymore, no weird feeling,” Galeano said. “I cannot detach myself from what I do. Whatever I do, I have to realize where I’m coming from.”