Twenty-eight-year-old Dory Castillo has faced challenges that are remarkable by any standard, including weathering poverty and abuse at home from the time she was young, and the fear and uncertainty that comes from being an undocumented immigrant, or DREAMer. But through it all, school has remained a place of stability and comfort for her, and a beacon of hope for a brighter future.
“Ever since I was a kid, the most love and affection I got was from teachers, and doing well in school was natural for me,” said Castillo. “It was a safe place, a distraction from home life, and meditation for me. It allowed me to concentrate on something other than my home life.”
As she enters her senior year at Rutgers University–Newark, Castillo is blazing a trail in the Physics department, doing advanced research with professors, winning awards, and passing on her extensive knowledge as a teaching assistant for undergraduate courses. By all accounts, she makes it look easy, but her path to RU-N was anything but, reflecting not only her determination but the vital role teachers and mentors play in students’ lives, and RU-N's commitment to nurturing talent from underserved communities.
Castillo grew up in Paterson, NJ, with a brief stint in Newark, the second of three daughters raised by a mother who migrated to the U.S. from Ecuador just after Castillo was born. Her mother, one of 17 children raised in the port city of Guayaquil, never finished high school. Once in Paterson, she began working as a house maid and married a man from Puerto Rico who became the children’s stepfather. Castillo’s grandmother also lived with them for much of her youth.
Castillo remembers experiencing food insecurity and growing up in poverty. Her mother and stepfather were alcoholics. They moved homes 14 times before Castillo turned 17. Her mother was verbally and physically abusive to her and her sisters, suffering from what Castillo thinks is bipolar disorder, and pressed them as they got older to get jobs to support the family rather than focus on school, despite having become a home health aide, then a Certified Nursing Assistant, herself.
When she was 9, Castillo’s grandmother told her she was undocumented and explained what it meant: Castillo understood as much as any 9-year-old could, but she knew to keep quiet about it for fear of being deported, shouldering that anxiety along with a deeper cauldron of emotions.
The professors at RU-N have been wonderful. They’ve welcomed me with open arms and are always ready to help me with another opportunity.
As she ran this gantlet, the two nourishing constants in Castillo's life were school and her older sister, Emma, now 31. Though the family moved constantly, they stayed mostly in Paterson, allowing the siblings to attend the same K-8 school before moving on to Passaic County Technical Institute (PCTI) in Wayne, NJ, for high school. Because of that stability, the girls’ teachers and school therapists knew their predicament and looked after them, and each flourished academically in those environments, despite the tumult at home.
As a kid Castillo had been intensely interested in music and art. Once in high school she shifted gears, excelling in computer science while playing on the golf and tennis teams. Despite her high GPA, however, she was told to apply to community colleges senior year, because of her undocumented status.
Montclair State University (MSU) was the only school that accepted her as an in-state student, and Castillo began there in 2012, at age 20, after an intense two-year period where she worked nonstop to pay her family’s bills—and taught herself calculus and devoured physics books to escape the escalating abuse at home. It got so bad, in fact, that she eventually sought refuge with Emma’s boyfriend’s family, who took her in, provided love, helped her find a therapist, and became the foundation she’d always longed for.
At MSU Castillo flourished as a Physics major, doing undergraduate research and co-authoring a paper for an academic journal. She also gained valuable teaching experience; took part in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), which supports underrepresented minorities in STEM fields; and presented at Women in Physics conferences held by the American Physics Society, an affiliation that she has found invaluable.
“I wanted to self-advocate and pursue every opportunity I could at MSU, since I wasn’t able to achieve college right after high school,” said Castillo. “And I've been exposed to incredible women at these conferences. Most have imposter syndrome, being female in the sciences, but we’re going through this together, and I always feel rejuvenated after being with them.”
While at MSU Castillo’s family issues continued unabated, however, forcing her to leave school in 2015. Over the next four years she worked as a barista while teaching and tutoring in various contexts, both at MSU and with private companies: She ran STEM-enrichment and Gifted-and-Talented programs for kids, and taught a wide variety of subjects such as computer programming, circuitry and engineering schematics, math, physics and web design.
In spring 2019 Castillo resumed her studies to complete her B.S. in Physics and Math.
She had originally thought to return to MSU, but after speaking with the acting chairperson of RU-N's Physics department, Professor Michele Pavanello, Castillo decided to transfer her credits to the School of Arts & Sciences–Newark (SASN) and hit the ground running: In one short year, she’s done research on shock dynamics in the lab of Professor Claudiu Stan, worked as a Learning Assistant for Professor Sheehan Ahmed’s Physics I and II courses, serves as president of RU-N's Physics Club, and won the Betty Skuse Thompson Prize in Physics for the 2019–2020 academic year for outstanding achievement in the department.
Castillo also recently won a coveted spot in California Institute of Technology’s WAVE Fellows summer research program, which fosters diversity by increasing the participation of underrepresented students in science and engineering Ph.D. programs. For 10 weeks this summer, she’s doing remote research on fluid mechanics with Professor Beverley McKeon of Caltech's Aerospace Engineering department, studying turbulent flows and working on numerical analysis and data visualization.
Castillo is grateful for the support she’s received at RU-N and feels she’s found a home here. She’s also an evangelist for the Physics department, trying to attract more female students to the major.
“The professors at RU-N have been wonderful. They’ve welcomed me with open arms and are always ready to help me with another opportunity,” said Castillo. “I also managed to talk three female students into attending the most recent Women in Physics conference. I always say, ‘Math is the language of the world, and Physics is the storyteller.’ Hopefully, I’ll be able to convert more girls while I’m here.”