From Girls’ Academy to Alverno Graduate
New Alverno graduate Irma Quezada is living proof that girls and women can achieve much more than what society may expect from them.
Quezada, who this May earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, is the first alumna of Alverno’s Girls’ Academy of Science & Mathematics to go on to graduate from the College. Her experience in the Girls’ Academy, where Alverno faculty and students give local high school girls hands-on experience in science, technology, engineering and math, helped prepare her to succeed in college. It also marked the birth of a fierce advocate for women in STEM.
“Alverno gave me that empowerment that I needed,” she says.
At Alverno, Quezada has shared her love of science by organizing events in the broader Milwaukee community and serving as a student assistant for the Girls’ Academy. The girls she met, many of them minorities, would ask her if they, too, would be able to go to college. “I had the opportunity to say ‘yes, you can,’” she says.
Quezada’s road to graduation wasn’t an easy one. “I always knew I wanted to be a scientist,” she says, but her parents questioned whether that was the right field for a girl. Such doubts were no match for her natural curiosity and drive, however. As a child, she’d find experiments to do, like using baking soda and vinegar to create a reaction that inflates a balloon. And a supportive older sister gave her a telescope so she could study the stars and a microscope for her to examine leaves.
As a student at Milwaukee’s Veritas High School, she was invited to join the brand-new Girls’ Academy. The experience gave her a sense of Alverno as a place where students could form one-on-one relationships with faculty members and where the small class sizes enabled an interactive experience. As a result, when it was time to choose a college, Alverno was her top choice.
At Alverno, Quezada excelled in and out of the classroom. She was a Promise Scholar and Doherty Scholar; a mentor to students in Alverno’s natural sciences, mathematics and technology department; a lab assistant; and a tutor in the Daniel M. Soref Science and Mathematics Resource Center. She partnered with Alverno faculty on scientific research and volunteered with the Milwaukee chapter of the American Chemical Society. The national organization named her the Milwaukee chapter’s 2017 Outreach Volunteer of the Year in recognition of the science-related events she organized at Milwaukee’s Discovery World, which hundreds of area children attended.
Last year, Quezada interned in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s biochemical oxygen demand lab, where she and her team tested the water discharged into Lake Michigan to make sure it had safe oxygen levels.
Through it all, Quezada worked full-time to fund her education. “It got hard, but I never gave up,” she says.
Tracy Thompson, professor and chair of Alverno’s Physical Sciences department, says Quezada is the consummate professional. “No matter what’s going on, she carries herself with poise,” she says.
Quezada says professors like Thompson—who met with her daily in the weeks leading up to graduation—were an essential part of her Alverno experience. “They are always there for you, always pushing you,” she says.
Other key pillars of support were her older sister and her brother-in-law, as well as her fiancé Javier, a new graduate of the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
Up next for Quezada is a new lab internship at MMSD, to which her prior internship supervisor invited her to apply. She hopes to earn a doctorate in a pharmacy program and work in a pharmaceutical research lab.
Wherever she ends up, expect Quezada to continue advocating for women and girls in STEM and making a positive impact on her community.
“Irma captures what it means to be a chemistry major. It’s not just about getting a job in the chemistry industry, it’s about being a good citizen,” Thompson says. “She has a sense of responsibility to herself, to the community and to the bigger world.”