Luisa Mercado moved from Colombia, South America four years ago to continue her education and chase all possible opportunities. She said this ambition may lead her somewhere she never expected—a graduate school in Saudi Arabia.
“In Saudi Arabia, I have the chance to now prepare for my master’s [degree], get training, hopefully research there and train me better for a Ph.D.,” Mercado said. “So why not?”
Mercado is a senior at Webster and plans to graduate in May with a degree in computational biology. She is one of three students, all of whom are women, to finish the program.
Webster chess coach Susan Polgar recommended King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) to Mercado a month before the graduate school’s application deadline. Polgar has coached Mercado since Mercado’s freshman year, but they met in 2013 after Mercado traveled to Webster for a Girl’s Invitational Chess Tournament. Mercado won the tournament and earned a full scholarship to Webster.
Polgar traveled to KAUST as a guest speaker at a conference before recommending the school to Mercado. She said only students in the top percentages of their undergraduate school were accepted to KAUST. Despite the challenge, she felt confident in Mercado’s chances.
“It’s a great opportunity if she gets accepted, and the acceptance requirements are quite high, but since she is basically a 4.0 student, she is one of the few people who would be a candidate,” Polgar said.
Mercado said she trusted Polgar’s judgement, but she initially felt nervous about living in a country with a multitude of restrictions regarding women’s rights.
In Colombia, Mercado said she did not see gender as a deterrent to the women around her. Many of Mercado’s female family members, including her mother, worked in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
“I know a lot of women in STEM,” Mercado said. “I know so many that are mathematicians, like Ph.D.s in mathematics and biology, but that is just my environment. That’s only what I know.”
Despite Mercado’s connection with many Colombian, STEM women, she said her country’s current political climate did not offer her enough opportunities to succeed in computational biology. Mercado said Webster provided her with even more female mentors, and she saw the U.S. as a country working to empower women. She said she did not want to lose that encouragement.
Polgar said international students filled KAUST’s campus and hardly saw a reason for Mercado to leave the area and experience the country’s gender constraints because of the multitude of businesses and activities on campus.
Mercado said if she did explore the towns surrounding campus, she would not hesitate to wear a burqa to abide by cultural traditions. She said she had to overcome cultural barriers when coming to the U.S. and would continue to do so wherever she went.
Shiloh Bradley is one of the other two female students graduating with a computational biology degree this year.
Bradley said Mercado would fit in wherever she went because of her upbeat and helpful attitude. She said she did not worry about Mercado traveling for school because she trusted Mercado’s judgement and ability to appreciate the cultures around her.
“Luisa is so adventurous, so she just follows opportunities,” Bradley said. “I think that’s just a really great attitude to have because life is short. Why stay in one place your whole life when you can experience so much more?”
Mercado said she has been traveling since age seven to compete in chess competitions in countries like Argentina, Venezuela, Costa Rica and other Latin American countries. She said she did not necessarily love traveling, it was just something she did to accomplish all of her goals.
“I kind of like to [travel] for chasing opportunities more than because I like traveling,” Mercado said.
If KAUST does not accept Mercado into their computer science program, Mercado said she would have three months to find a job. She said she could face deportation if she does not accept a job in her field in the time-period and would have to wait one year before coming back to the U.S. for graduate school.
Professor Victoria Brown-Kennerly said she thought Mercado would continue to succeed, no matter where she settled. She has known Mercado for three years and teaches as a professor in Webster’s department of biological sciences.
“[I see her] as a biological engineer, or a ground-breaking scientist, but certainly as a role model for women in STEM,” Brown-Kennerly said. “I also think she will mentor others as she has been mentored.”
Mercado will not have problems moving forward, according to Bradley.
“I really don’t think she is the kind of person to let obstacles get in her way,” Bradley said. “She’s someone who seeks opportunities and follows them. She doesn’t limit herself geographically or restrict herself because something sounds too hard. She’s someone who never settles.”
Luisa Mercado realized she needed to learn English to attend Webster.
Mercado said she took some English classes before college, but she did not have a good understanding of the language. She said she knew she would have to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).
After spending a year taking English courses in Colombia, Mercado said she did not pass the TOEFL. She said she convinced Webster to let her come to the country to continue her English education. After a month of spending eight-hour days in intensive courses in New York, Mercado passed Webster’s English placement test, allowing her to bypass further language classes.
Mercado’s classmate, Shiloh Bradley, said Mercado progressed from google-translating words in class to having an impressive understanding of the language.
“She does a great job of managing the material in a different language which I think is really impressive because it’s very hard for me to learn the material, and I’m a native English speaker,” Bradley said.
Mercado said she remembers learning English with her classmates in Colombia. She said they looked toward American pop-culture for language practice, and she now laughs about all their mistranslations.
“It’s funny because now that I know English, I remember how bad we used to sing High School Musical songs in my country,” Mercado said. “Our word pronunciation was so bad. Now that I left, I might say, ‘Oh, this is what the song meant.’”