Rachel Roca ‘21 Talks Finding, Accepting and Celebrating Identity

By Brianna Coppola, Contributor

Manhattan College welcomes back alumni Rachel Roca ‘21, who shares her journey of finding, accepting and celebrating her identity. 

Roca is a second year Ph.D student at Michigan State University in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering. Roca graduated from MC having majored in math and minored in Spanish and computer science. During her time at MC, Roca was also the co-president of Just Peace, and was involved in the Math Club, Women in Successful Enterprise and went on L.O.V.E trips.

Roca started off by discussing identity and its importance, more specifically from a math education lens. Roca discusses how identity can challenge and transform society. 

“Throughout all this span, though, we do see a lot of commonalities in terms of math, education and identity in the classroom,” Roca said. “Because identity is super important, not only to what happens in the world, but also how we learn and interact in a classroom.”

Roca discussed being queer and how it has been a big part of her identity. Roca notes how there’s no specific label that she uses which makes her queerness more fluid and more dynamic. 

“Someone asked me what I meant when I said that I identify as a queer woman,” Roca said. “And I want to emphasize that, you know, sexuality and gender and our identities are really intimate, but we use our words and vocabulary in order to, you know, communicate some stuff about ourselves.”

Roca’s childhood has been a major contributor to who she is today. Roca dealt with several hardships growing up which impacted her education. Due to a few medical issues, Roca missed many months of school. 

“In fifth grade, I originally broke my ankle, and that led to nerve damage,” Roca said. “And so there were large periods of time where I couldn’t walk and often used crutches, and I try not to let that stop me.”

Roca reflects heavily on her identity. Roca uses several words and themes that best describe who she is. One of the words that stood out the most was daydreaming. Roca spent so much time dreaming about who she wanted to be. 

“So the first thing that came to mind in my journey has been becoming the person I dreamed of being,” Roca said. “So like I said, I spent a lot of time not being able to have a super normal childhood growing up and I’ve probably non consecutively missed over a year of school. And so during this time I spent a lot of time daydreaming and I spent a lot of time reading. I’ve always loved to read and I would think about all the things that I would love to do.”

Roca talked about finding the right group of people within her department in grad school. Roca had friends that were all able to share and discuss identity and what was important to them. Roca noted how there’s a lot of diversity in her group, specifically female representation which is empowering.

“Our lab group is the only one that’s predominantly female and it’s so powerful,” Roca said. “So representation really does matter and it’s important because math is not neutral and science is not nature, right? These are human endeavors that are not neutral and whether or not we want it we do bring ourselves, our biases, and our positionality to the work we do. And so it’s super powerful to have other people who represent that.”

Roca spent a semester in Budapest in 2020. The semester was centered around her studies in math and it was the only topic that was ever talked about. Roca discussed the things she dealt with during her time in Budapest and the struggles she faced.

“Instead of traveling and seeing new cities, all they wanted to do was talk about math and nothing else and that’s totally fine,” Roca said. “Except that ended up getting really competitive and toxic because people have contests with each other. And so I ended up feeling very uncomfortable, not just because of that but that the professors are also encouraging this behavior and again, an issue of representation, having 30 professors and only one of them being a woman.”

Roca soon found that it wasn’t a good environment for her and she was sacrificing her mental health in order to make it through the semester. Roca stopped doing a lot of the things she loved and solely focused on math. 

Roca decided graduate school would be the next big step in her life. Graduate school was a place for Roca to create and fund spaces. Roca notes how she was tested and challenged a lot. 

“There was another professor who was literally testing me who had sheets of paper and it wasn’t a great experience for me,” Roca said. “I remember crying afterwards and then I found out that they would be teaching the qualifying classes and exams you needed to pass in order to be in good standing with the department and I knew that no matter what those classes were, I would never be able to walk into one of their classrooms and feel safe. And so I chose not to go to that space.”

Roca found herself in leadership roles and created her own spaces. Roca is now co-editor for the journal of humanistic mathematics because she’s interested in math and social justice. Roca has found many people within her department that motivate and inspire her. Roca has a great advisor that was able to uplift her.

Roca spoke to balancing mental health and maintaining a social life. Roca knew limits and knew when to take time for herself. She often had dedicated days in the week that was her time. 

“I do a lot of work on the weekend and I’m not super social, but I tried to build in at least a few hours that I can prioritize in whatever way I want to give myself more of a balance, because balance is really important,” Roca said.

Roca didn’t let any battles in life stop her from becoming who she is today. Roca lets both the good and bad define her. Roca was able to create spaces and surround herself with the most important people in her life that support her, especially her parents. Roca is proud of her identity and is not ashamed of anything.