Opening new doors

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By Billie Blair

Santana Garcia-Chang and Francisco “Kiko” Rael, formerly of Questa, have a new home: Los Alamos and they love it.


They also have the seeds of careers at Los Alamos National Laboratory — thanks to a helping hand from a scholarship fund started by lab employees and run by the LANL Foundation.

Garcia-Chang and Rael hang out with scientists and engineers. Rael enjoys playing pickup soccer at the community field.

They visit Mesa Public Library and the Fuller Lodge Art Center.

“Los Alamos feels like a small town that’s tight-knit and ideal for families, and still has cultural things to do,” Garcia-Chang says. “It’s our home.”

Their days are busy: caring for their toddler son, Javan, working at Los Alamos National Laboratory where she is an intern and he is a full-time contractor and studying for college classes. But their eyes are on the prize of careers in environmental/civil engineering and health physics for radiation protection.

They are both the first in their families to pursue college degrees. Garcia-Chang, who receives $11,000 over four years from the Los Alamos Employees’ Scholarship Fund, is determined. She subsequently received a $20,000 scholarship from Merrick and Company. Rael is inspired by her drive, and became one of the early winners of a Returning

Student/Regional College Scholarship $1,000 award for people whose college careers are interrupted.

Funding for the Los Alamos Employees’ Scholarship Fund comes from donations by LANL employees and a matching amount from Los Alamos National Security, LLC.  

Garcia-Chang graduated from Questa High School, with a 4.0 and 33 hours of college credit from UNM-Taos and plans to earn a degree in civil engineering at UNM-Los Alamos in 2015.

Rael, a former firefighter with the Red River crew, aims for a degree from Northern New Mexico College to work in radiation control. Through the “pipeline” the LANL Foundation establishes with the labs, they have work in their fields.

They are the first to say they couldn’t do it without the support of lab employees and of their own families.

John McDermon, group leader of Departmental Computing Services, and a member of the foundation’s scholarship advisory committee, helped guide Garcia-Chang to a job in environmental remediation. Because she grew up near the Chevron mines, she knows how important environmental issues are to traditional norteño values.

“As an engineer, I want to make sure technology will not counter the nature and land-based traditions of Northern New Mexico,” she said.

Michael Cisneros, research technologist in the Chemistry Division, another member of the advisory committee and Questeño, asked his mother to talk to Garcia-Chang’s grandparents to encourage her to leave their small village and seize the opportunities of an internship on the Hill. She has excelled: she is part of the Worker Safety and Security Team and received the Tanzanite Award for moving storm water records from hard copy onto a new computer content management system: a cost savings of $72,000 a year.

Michael Duran, Radiational Protection Staff Member who teaches radiation protection at Northern, helped Rael get his internship and then contracted with him for his LANL job.

Garcia-Chang’s sister, Chanel who is now studying architecture at the University of New Mexico, moved in with the couple in Los Alamos to care for Javan the first summer they were on the Hill. Her mother, Brandi, who works at Pieces, a consignment store in Taos, is a frequent visitor. Rael’s mother, Virginia, is commuting to the Hill every Sunday evening to stay with Javan for the week. She takes him to children’s time at the library to play music.

Her grandparents, Lino and Viola Garcia, raised Santana since she was nine and her father, a native of Taiwan, died in an automobile accident.

When she became pregnant with Javan, she didn’t give up her server job in Red River, working through spring break before resigning to give birth two weeks later. She didn’t give up her high school career either, completing her junior year from home and graduating with honors. She also didn’t give up on her late father’s advice on education. She drove to Taos weekly to the Puentes program for single moms and worked with Bridges, a program that encourages Taos

County students to attend college. Joylene Montoya-Dye, Bridges’ executive director, convinced her, she said, that “I am not just a stereotype of a teen mom; I am worthy.”

Rael helped Taos Ski Valley launch its snowboard program and volunteered with the Questa High School soccer team.

He was called out to fight the Las Conchas fire last year, leading a 10-person crew to dig fire lines.

Now he is ready to settle down. Until grandmother arrived, he was getting Javan’s lunch ready, taking him to daycare and heading to study and work. Last semester, he drove both mornings and evenings down the hill for class at Northern. Now, he is studying online, while contracting full-time in radiation control.

The couple are looking forward to next summer and enrolling Javan in soccer camp. They cling to the American dream: to earn their college degrees, grow their careers at LANL, buy a house and settle down in their new hometown.

The couple looks at each other over lunch at a local coffee house. “She’s beautiful, intelligent, has amazing drive and inspires me,” Rael says. “What would I do without him?” asks Garcia-Chang.

For more information on the Los Alamos Employees’ Scholarship Fund, contact Tony Fox, Scholarship Program Officer, LANL Foundation, 505-753-8890, ext. 16, or tony@lanlfoundation.org. Visit lanlfoundation.org for application guidelines.