Meet Marie Elena Reyes: Founder of the Frida Kahlo InstituteSeptember 11, 2009
Marie Elena Reyes, 2001–02 Community Action Grant recipient, excelled in math throughout her early academic career but received little instruction or encouragement about science. Marie Elena was married with two children when she took her first biology class. “I was shocked by how exciting it was,” she said of the class. It was then that she discovered her passion for science.
As an older Latina in pursuit of two master’s degrees, Marie Elena faced many challenges. Now she is taking a cue from her own past experiences to guide her future. She reaches out to women of color pursuing STEM fields to provide them with the support and encouragement she didn’t have. Maria Elena said, “It’s about noticing a need and doing something about it.”
Marie Elena used her AAUW Community Action Grant to fund a project called Frontera Grrls, a collaboration between local middle schools and the University of Arizona Women in Science and Engineering Program. A workshop series for interested local middle school teachers provided a framework for after-school computer clubs focused on encouraging girls’ participation in technology and science. Each participating school approached the project with different resources and interests. One group of middle school girls created mini-films about relevant cultural issues, while another developed a teen-friendly website about girls’ self-esteem. Although Marie Elena eventually left the area, her interest in helping minority girls and women succeed in math and science continued.
In 2004 Marie Elena founded the Frida Kahlo Institute for Women at the Borderlands, with headquarters in Taos, New Mexico, and Tucson, Arizona. The institute focuses on “personal and leadership development for girls and women at transition points in life.” Through educational and mentoring programs, workshops, and summer camps, the institute aims to reach women and girls at critical transition periods, such as middle to high school, community college to university, and one career to another.
Marie Elena said the Frontera Grrls Community Action Grant project played an important role in developing the vision for the Frida Kahlo Institute. The project helped her see the value of inspiring younger girls to consider futures in math and science. Having faced and overcome discrimination, Marie Elena is working to help women and girls in the borderlands understand that they do have a place in math and science fields.