The endless bounds of space are giving Jordan Sanchez limitless possibilities.
The Bronx High School of Science graduate is set to attend Harvard University in the fall to study astrophysics, with aspirations to work at NASA or SpaceX someday. And when she “gets tired of that,” Sanchez looks forward to a calmer life of researcher and teaching.
Sanchez’s journey to Harvard started in her eighth-grade science class at what was then M.S. 118 Pace Academy, just outside of Belmont. It was there a teacher believed Sanchez was smart enough to go into medicine. That compliment was more than enough to set the teenager on a biology-focused journey.
“I took an AP biology course, and then in my junior year I took AP physics because that’s what most juniors took,” Sanchez said. “I absolutely fell in love with physics.”
In her senior year, Sanchez took post-AP classes in genetics and physics, which sealed the deal for her.
“In genetics, there’s not much more you can do to understand the structure of DNA, she said. “There are certain blocks that you hit in a lot of the biological sciences that I feel you won’t hit in physics until maybe decades — or even centuries — into the future.”
After getting accepted into 10 out of the 17 schools she applied to ranging from Ivy Leagues to small liberal arts colleges, Sanchez had a big decision to make. She narrowed her choices down to Cornell, Harvard and University of Massachusetts-Amherst, before settling on the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based school.
Already interested in astrophysics, every time there is a major step forward in the space community, Sanchez gets excited, which she uses to fuel her already strong desire to be part of it. One such piece of news as of late was the Event Horizon Telescope capturing the first image of a black hole.
“The whole black hole imaging project was led by some Harvard graduates, plus they have the whole center for astrophysics so it really felt like everything that I wanted was there,” Sanchez said.
Astrophysics is a field notably closed off to black women. According to Data USA, out of 512 bachelor’s degrees awarded in astrophysics nationwide in 2016, only four were awarded to black women.
However, that imbalance is something Sanchez has, unfortunately, become used to.
“The Bronx High School of Science is predominately Asian and white so I’ve been the only black student in all of my classes,” she said. “It’s definitely not something that’s foreign to me.”
Sanchez, of course, isn’t the first aspiring astrophysicist to graduate from Bronx Science. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a notable alum, and is probably one of the nation’s most famous astrophysicists with his many television appearances, as well as host of the educational series “Cosmos.” Tyson hasn’t forgotten his roots either, Sanchez said. He and other alumni like Apollo space missions scientist Al Nagler regularly visited the school to speak to students.
“I’m always engaged and interacting with people who have been in the field, been in the forefront of the field,” Sanchez said. “So for me, I don’t need to aspire or look up to anyone who’s so far away when they’re all so close.”
In addition to working hard in school, Sanchez has been busy outside of the classroom, too. In 2015, Sanchez started entering state-level beauty pageants, currently holding the title of Royal International Miss New York Teen. She even started a website, TheQueenNextDoor.com, to showcase the accomplishments of other girls in pageants.
“It’s so easy to think, ‘Oh beauty pageant girls, spacey, dumb, doesn’t really think much about anything ever,’” Sanchez said. “So it’s really nice to change that stereotype.”
Two years later, Sanchez started performing with GirlBeHeard, a socially conscious theatre group. Since joining, she has performed at the 2018 March for Our Lives rally in Washington, twice at the United Nations, and even for the cast of the Marvel superhero film “Black Panther.”
Sanchez credits GirlBeHeard with “helping girls find their voices” and plans to join the Association of Black Harvard Women’s community mentorship efforts because the program “has the same values.”
Looking ahead to her August start date at Harvard, Sanchez has summer plans to compete in a national beauty pageant, teach herself a new computer coding language, keep up her Mandarin skills, and teach herself advanced calculus to help prepare her for what Sanchez expects to be far more difficult classes at Harvard.
While Sanchez spends her summer eagerly preparing for her future, she hasn’t forgotten the challenges that still lie ahead.
“If people like me aren’t willing to even try to put themselves in those (advanced scientific) spaces, they’ll always stay predominately white, straight, male, cisgender,” Sanchez said. “I feel like I might as well try. Although it’s going to be hard, I know I’ll be fine because I’m there, first and foremost, to learn, and no one can take that from me.”