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Excellence and Equity

A conversation with Richard Tapia

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Richard Tapia is one of the most distinguished mathematicians of his generation. In 2011, he was awarded the National Medal of Science, the highest honor bestowed by America to scientists and engineers. He was also the first Latino elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Now 86, he is a University Professor at Rice University. It’s the top academic title at Rice, awarded to only seven others in the university’s 100-year history. 

Yet of all these accomplishments, Tapia is proudest of being the founder of the Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity in Education, which has provided training and guidance to over 6,000 college students and 2,500 K-12 teachers, as well as the Tapia STEM Camps for grades 8-12 held each summer at Rice.

Tapia graciously took time to meet with ExxonMobil executive Nicolas Medina, chair of the Tapia Center board, and Alfredo Estrada, editor-in-chief of LATINO Magazine. Sitting in the professor’s back yard in Houston, they discussed Tapia’s passionate vision for the center, his fierce dedication to Latino students, and his lasting legacy.

LATINO Magazine
What made you create the Tapia Center? 

Richard Tapia
That's a really good question. My mother and father came from Mexico, and they were very proud of being Mexican. But I grew up in Los Angeles around mostly non-Latinos, and they would tell us that we were inferior. Here's my mother telling me we're the best, and there's the neighbors and people in school saying Mexicans are lazy and stupid. So I had to fight that stereotype.  I was the best student in school in mathematics, and that helped me fight.

I went to UCLA and got a Ph.D. Then I was at Stanford and [University of] Wisconsin and Rice. When I got there, I saw that underrepresented minorities needed help. I knew that I could help. I've been there, I know what it takes, and I started helping. Soon we were starting programs and getting funding. That one tiny kernel grew and grew and grew. Eventually in 1994, we turned it into the Tapia Center. And I'm very proud of that.

LATINO Magazine
What need did the Tapia Center serve?

Richard Tapia
I had to start it because it was good for the country. In a university environment, you always think what's good for the individual is good for the department, and what's good for the school is good for the nation. 

I needed to do things that were good for the nation, not just good for our department. And that was improved representation. There's a really important issue here. The point is not just to improve representation but give it credibility. Improving representation is something that the country needs and the country needs to appreciate.

As a research mathematician with a good reputation who won the National Medal of Science, I could give the activities that I did credibility. And that was important. So when people say Richard Tapia, well, he can't be a total turkey. Because if you win the National Medal of Science, you can't be a total turkey.

I use those credentials as a platform to get me onstage to talk about the need for improvement of underrepresentation. That's been the model. But when I was a little kid, I just wanted to be a mathematician. I never thought that I was going to be a teacher or a great teacher. In fact, I thought I'd be a terrible teacher.

So that’s how I saw I could fill a need. And not only that, I had to fill the need. The most delicate thing in my whole life has been how to balance being a mathematician and doing outreach. 

LATINO Magazine
You said you had to do it, which is a very powerful statement. Why did you feel this obligation to your students? 

Richard Tapia
I felt then and I still feel to this day the American Dream. When we talk about the American Dream, some people say it’s dead. You can't do it again. But I've been treated very well in terms of academia. I mean, I've been in environments that really were productive and I've been treated well as an individual and gained respect. So I felt that I wanted to make academia friendly.

Many of us say, “I don't belong, I don't belong, I don't belong.”  I want to say that I do belong. And it took me a long time, but I finally got to the point where I said, “I belong.”  Then I was in a position to help others and, once I started helping others, I had to ask the question, “What's more important, the outreach that I'm doing or the research that I'm doing?”

And a lot of people would tell me you can't do both. You should just do research because you're very good at it. But I knew that I had to do something that would make the world, if you wish, a better place. Somehow my mother had instilled this feeling inside of me. I needed to make the world a better place. 

I didn't know how I was going to get there. But I know it would be more effective if we did our own funding and wrote our own proposals. So we did it. And then we needed a board. And I had some friends and some people I knew that I thought were powerful people, and that included Nicolas, Geraldina Wise, Sofia Adrogue and Carolyn Baker. So I asked them to be on the board. They all agreed, and it turned out to be an outstanding board. And then Paul Hand [the Director of the Tapia Camps]. I have to give credit to the people who have helped us. Certainly, Nicolas Medina is one and ExxonMobil is an organization that has helped immensely.

So I gave it the impetus. I started it, but then I saw that this machine was going to grow and get bigger and bigger and bigger. So my only concern was how to balance my life. And I tried my best.  Would I do it the same way again? I'm not sure. But it was right for us to be to build the center and to use it as a vehicle to get visibility for all the good things that we are doing.


LATINO Magazine
Nicolas, how did you meet Richard Tapia and what motivated you to join the board? 



Nicolas Medina 
I got to meet him personally when I lived in Washington, DC and he was honored at the Kennedy Center during the Hispanic Heritage Awards. We started a friendship and a collaboration. When I moved to Houston in 2009, he was more widely recognized. President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Science.

I remember one of the first meetings that I had with him where he said, “I want to formalize the Tapia Center here at Rice, and I need your help.”  I appreciate somebody that puts things clearly. You know, a lot of us beat around the bush. Richard will tell you exactly what he needs and what he wants, and he builds a group of people to pursue that.

But Richard can be bold. He can say things unfiltered. He provokes change. And for me, that was a positive. We need folks that say things plainly, but also provoke us to do better. And he believes that, yes, you can make it happen. So I was very, very fortunate. I had a senior executive who gave me full support and told me to help Richard get anything he needed. And so we started the Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity in Education.

Its ambitions have always been broad, to really get the message [about STEM] across, not just at Rice but across the nation. Richard has probably done hundreds of talks in the most prominent universities across the country. He really emphasizes why this is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also the most effective way to improve our society, to empower and train the next generation of students to either go into academia, the private sector, or other areas that they choose.

And that was the genesis of Richard’s vision. It has enabled us to have this transforming experience for high school students and young kids to really fall into in love with STEM, and learn that they really can do it right, and that nothing should be a barrier for them to pursue that dream. It's not just the right thing to do, it's also the best thing we can do as a nation.


LATINO Magazine
What was the next step that took the Tapia Center forward? 

Richard Tapia
Well, it was to focus on the things that we did best. And that's when Paul Hand came in. He’s an excellent research mathematician, yet he had a program that he wanted to sell to high school kids. We hired him as a faculty member. And one of the reasons he chose Rice was because of the Tapia Center. Paul said that it was a vehicle for him to do some great things. The curriculum that we have has been designed by Paul and it's really excellent.

So the next thing we did was to take the support we were getting, like that from ExxonMobil, and let Paul build on this. Right now, if you ask what is the best-known thing of the center, it's the Tapia Camps. Yeah, it's been really, really fine and we’re expanding. At first it was just Houston, then it was throughout Texas, and then last year we went to Louisiana. This year I'm told by Nicolas that we are including Mississippi. 

LATINO Magazine
Nicolas what role did you and ExxonMobil play in the Tapia Camps?

Nicolas Medina
We started with Richard's inspiration. And then with the team he put together, including Paul and the board, we made it a reality. Let me share a couple of stories. 

I have four kids. And when I was taking my older ones to see colleges around the country, I remember going to Caltech and MIT and others. At one [campus], I remember seeing a picture of Richard Tapia addressing a big crowd. So I was with the admissions officer of the School of Engineering, which is where one of my kids wanted to go to school, and I asked him about it. And he said with so much pride, “Oh, we host people like Richard Tapia, who is a luminary in the field of mathematics, but more importantly for his work on really getting women and minorities and pretty much everybody interested in STEM.”

They didn't know that I'd been chairing the board of the center for a number of years. And I'm privileged to say that I was Richard’s first and I continue to be his only chair. It gave me a huge sense of responsibility. And it’s quite an obligation to maintain this legacy.

A few months ago, I was coaching Little League baseball for my youngest and one of the parents was talking to me about what they're going to do with their high school student during the summer. And he says, “Oh, I have a great idea. Rice has this great program on STEM that is led by Richard Tapia. When I look at his bio and the work that he's accomplished, I want my daughter to have that opportunity.”  You know, I didn't want to brag, so I just told him, “I think that's a great idea.”  

What it comes down to is the legacy that Richard represents. Part of it is that no matter where you come from, whether from poor or well-to-do families, every parent wants their children to be inspired by people that tell them that yes, they can. No matter what background you have, you have the best of ambitions. And that's something that Richard has really provoked us to aspire to.
The curriculum of the camps is project-based learning. That allows kids to get their hands into STEM, you know, with projects that they can actually see and do. And we've been piloting a new curriculum that teaches kids about carbon, and how we as individuals and as a society can work to reduce our footprint in this world to address the challenges that we have from climate to many other things.

I don't think there is a program today that accomplishes that in a more effective way. Over 500 kids from 55 school districts participated last year. And I can tell you that in many ways, the reason why those parents agree to send their children to join us for the camps is because Richard's name and legacy speak for themselves.

They want their kids to feel that yes, they can. They have to work hard and prove what they can do. The parents join us at graduation and they all want to meet Richard and take a picture with him. So much that the instructors made a t-shirt with his face. Everybody wears it one day in the camps, and call it the cocuy, which is a kind of bogeyman. But it's a way of branding what Richard has been through. Sincere, unfiltered, and provoking us to do more. For those kids and their parents, that legacy means a lot, and it will continue to live with us for many years to come. 


LATINO Magazine
I think it's very important that it’s called the Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity in Education. Every so often we hear there's a conflict between the two. And what you're saying is there isn't. Tell us about why it's important to have both excellence and equity. 

Richard Tapia
When I was at Stanford they said if you're a good teacher, you can't be a good researcher. And so nobody would worry about the teaching. And there was terrible teaching because they would say, okay, we're going to do research now.

That's what we were always told. And a lot of people would say, you must be careful because you can't do both. And yet I felt that I had to do both and I was going to try. I mean, I had to because that was a part of me. Many people told me I shouldn’t be doing all those things. But I was right. I do believe that. Let me make a bold statement here. I believe that the Tapia Center and its mission is more important than the research that I do.

My research got me promoted very fast. I won a lot of awards, and those awards give me the credibility to build the Tapia Center. And that is the reputation that we had. I don't want the recognition for me when I win an award. I want it to add credibility to what I'm doing. That's important. And so people will say, look, Tapia has a National Medal of Science, and yet he's doing all this outreach. It means that outreach can be accepted as part of an excellence program. 

So if I leave a legacy, it’s about the students that I've worked with who go forward and do things like that. And they have. In fact, today I'm writing a letter for one student for a job as a university professor. And I'm going to say that they've been influenced by the things that I do. And they all tell me you were the role model for this and that makes me smile. I want to be a role model. I am an American. I want to be proud of that.

LATINO Magazine
When you talk about all the students you've had in your teaching career, and all those who’ve gone to the Tapia Center, it’s clear they’re the next generation. What advice would you give them?

Richard Tapia
That there's more to being an academic than just doing research or just doing teaching. There's also been awareness that we're not equally represented. And so I think of my students like Joseph Sifuentes, who's at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. They're wonderful models of what I would want from a faculty.

So when my students go off and do the things that I think should be done and that the country needs, it makes me very, very happy. I want them to take the ball that I gave them and run with it. They saw how I did things, and that always has helped. That's all I want. I want them to carry the ball forward. That's what I want most of all.



Nicolas Medina
At ExxonMobil we have hundreds of employees who have been touched by Richard. A number of them went to Rice and got PhDs, and they were influenced by what Richard did for their careers.


Just last year, we had an event for him at our Baytown complex, and he had just published A Precious Few, which is an incredible book about his life and the impact he's had on STEM. We distributed copies and to this day, not a week passes that somebody in the company doesn’t say, “You know what? I just finished reading Richard's book, and this is the section that really touched me. I would love to think more about it and sit down with him.”

I think we need to continue to inspire more of that. Richard has never been afraid to think out of the box. 

Richard Tapia
I never have, but I never thought I would get rewarded for it. I mean, what part of the world am I in where all these people are saying good things about me? You know, not that I'm a pain in the ass, but I am. Okay?  You know, I asked my wife Jean, “Do you think I'm a pain in the ass?” And she said yes.

I'm very happy and it's the right time to get off the train. It was a long ride, but I can see the end. The Tapia Center will keep moving forward. And that makes me happy. I say, okay, I'm happy that we started this.

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