In unison, identical twins Erica and Jessica Rivera emphatically declare that mathematics is their passion. They don't know where this love comes from, they say it's organic -- let's say it runs in their matching DNA. From as early as fourth grade, the now 19-year-old sisters remember the joy they felt solving math problems in class.
"As soon as I start working on a math problem, I feel like I am stepping into a different world," Erica said. "A world where there just might be a possible solution to every problem."
Looking for solutions to life's problems is something that Erica and Jessica have had their fair share of. Their mother, Celia Gaytan, immigrated from Mexico with little more than a fifth-grade education. On most weekends the twins were up by 4 a.m., helping Gaytan load a truck with clothes and shoes to sell at the swap meet to make ends meet. The single mom and her girls shared a single bedroom in an apartment in one of Anaheim's most dangerous neighborhoods. In 2015, due to escalating violence between rival gangs, the apartment complex they lived in was set on fire.
"It is not easy living in an environment where inspiration and motivation, as well as dreams, are limited," Erica said.
Alumni of the TGR Learning Lab, current Earl Woods Scholars and freshmen at Stanford University, the twins acknowledge that their family's struggles have shaped them, but they refuse to let it define them.
"Besides having to learn how to live with a variety of disadvantages, I learned to live with hope," Jessica explained. "Education was the one thing that allowed me to escape from the horrible conditions that I was living in."
The TGR Learning Lab became an educational refuge for the girls. While they were first introduced to the learning lab during their elementary school's week-long field trip in fifth grade, it wasn't until the twins were freshmen at Anaheim's Savanna High School that the lab became part of their daily routine. They came in to study for exams, receive help on homework and take part in STEM-related after-school workshops. Classes like food science, photography and their favorite, the College Bound Academy, exposed them to possibilities for college and beyond.
"Coming to the lab, that's when I got more of an introduction to the STEM-related fields and what I could potentially study in college, and that made me fall more in love with the subject," Jessica said.
"Coming here, I felt like I was one step ahead because of the extra support that was provided," Erica said. "Coming from a school that lacks those resources, it was appealing to us. Everything was provided; you just had to take advantage of it."
In looking back though, it was their acceptance to the Earl Woods Scholar Program (EWSP) that they believe made the biggest impact on their academic life. EWSP staff resources led the girls to competitive math, STEM and biomedical research summer programs at Stanford, UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton. Erica and Jessica are grateful that the scholar program not only introduced them to a diverse range of private, liberal arts colleges, but also steered them toward additional scholarship programs, assisted with the application process and covered most application costs. The one-on-one attention provided by EWSP staff, coupled with numerous college prep and financial aid workshops and meet-and-greets with admissions officers, made the college application process far less daunting. In fact, between the two of them, the twins were recipients of many prestigious scholarships, ranging from Disney and Dell to the Gates Millennial Scholarship.
For the twins, the environment of support that the TGR Learning Lab offered them left a lasting impression as well.
"Being around people that have the same goals as you, being able to be with nine students who are in the same position as you -- first-generation college students -- is something that really helped me throughout the process as well," Jessica said.
For Erica, it is clear that the EWSP staff has become an extension of her family.
"Having five people look over our college essays ... It's more than our high school could ever offer us. I feel blessed to have them. I have bonded with them; I'm connected to them. That personal connection is established," Erica boasted.
The feeling of love and respect is mutual and evident when speaking to EWSP's Senior Programs Manager Denisse Jover, who has worked with the twins since their freshman year.
"As I continue to work with them, what impresses me most is their drive and motivation," Jover said. "They are not afraid to ask questions and seek out resources to ensure they each set themselves up for success. I am very excited for what the future holds for them because they are change agents not only for their family but their community as well."
Now nearing the end of their freshman year at Stanford, Erica and Jessica have set out to break stereotypes and prove that where you come from should not limit where you go in life. Erica, a mathematics and computational science major, and Jessica, a mathematics major, have taken their passion for numbers and problem solving and are redefining their lives.
"Because I am a financially disadvantaged student and come from a single-parent household, it is said that I won't end up achieving anything in life," Jessica explained. "Despite every obstacle, despite every hardship, despite every struggle, I choose to prove those expectations wrong. I have decided to become the person that I expect to be, rather then the person that others expect me to be. You can look at your disadvantages as an excuse to fail, or you can look at them as a reason to strive for better."
Erica and Jessica's excitement for what the future holds is evident. With their sights set on graduating from Stanford in a few years, the twins are soaking in life on campus, which includes meeting and making a diverse group of friends, throwing themselves into STEM-related coursework, studying abroad and seeing the world. They've worked hard to get where they are, and they plan to work even harder to obtain their goals -- for themselves, their mother and their community.
"I don't stop when I'm tired," Erica declared. "I stop when I'm finished."
Champions of the unexpected.