Luckily, “There were people who helped me.” At Harbor community college, his teachers recognized his talent for mathematics. On their advice, he transferred to UCLA, where he earned his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in mathematics.
He went on to become arguably the best-known Hispanic in the mathematical sciences in the United States today. Among other honors, Tapia was appointed to the National Science Board by President Clinton; became the first native-born Hispanic to be elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering; and was inducted into the Texas Science Hall of Fame. This year alone, he will receive two Honorary Doctorates; The American Mathematical Society Award for Distinguished Public Service; and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics Award for Distinguished Public Service; and the UCLA Alumni Association Community Service Award.
He uses that success to encourage others. “I know there are a lot of people like me who are falling through cracks, and I want to show them that there’s a way out of the barrio – I found it, and you can have a wonderful life.”
Tapia believes that “Anyone who grows up in the United States in a city as an underrepresented minority has ‘extra baggage.’ I had more people telling me I couldn’t than that I could.” Therefore, “I do a lot of motivational talks not to let other people dictate your path. I want to show people that excellence can come from all directions, all flavors, all sexes.”
To Tapia, diversity in faculty is just as important as diversity in the student body. “If you’re a woman and you want to go into math and every faculty you see is male, you say, ‘You tell me I can do it but I don’t see anyone like me.’ … If you don’t have a diverse faculty, how can you teach diverse students?” he asks.
The first Hispanic faculty member in Science and Engineering at Rice University, Tapia is one of the reasons Hispanic Magazine has ranked Rice, for the fourth year in a row, among the top schools in the nation that are succeeding in recruiting and retaining Hispanic students.
The national average for Ph.D. production in the mathematical sciences is 27% for women and less than 5% for underrepresented minorities. In Tapia’s department the numbers are startlingly different: of the 23 Ph.D.s produced in the last five years, 13 were women and 8 were underrepresented minorities. Since Rice isn’t a large university, “We won’t impact the numbers, but we can teach people that it can be done, and that will impact the numbers.”
In both Tapia’s own life and the lives of those he has inspired, “The American dream came through,” as Tapia says. “Our father was so proud to the day he died about our accomplishments. It is the most wonderful thing we could have given my parents,” he says, explaining that that four of the five children got graduate degrees at schools like UCLA, Yale and USC.
“My mother and father to this day would tell me, we came to the United States in search of education. And UCLA gave me that . . .”