Saba Waheed: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, this is Re:Work. I’m Saba Waheed.
Veena Hampapur: And I’m Veena Hampapur.
What happens when you go to work and no one else in the room looks like you? There are still professions where you see mostly men, or not a single person of color. Being the “only one” often means more scrutiny, less support, having to work harder, or to justify why you’re even there.
Saba Waheed: In this week’s episode of Re:Work, Zayana Ross-Torrence shares her experience as a Black woman studying in the sciences and then working in a male-dominated industry.
Veena Hampapur: Zayana grew up in Carson, a city in the middle of Los Angeles.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: Carson has different areas. We have like the DA, which is, the black part of Carson that people call it, and then we have like the part where Carson Mall is, and it’s starting to get a lot more gentrified, to be honest.
Veena Hampapur: Zayana’s childhood was filled with cousins, aunts and uncles —
Zayana Ross-Torrence: I have cousins that came from just family…my brothers, my aunt’s children, my uncle’s children, and then I have cousins that my grandma like raised their family, or taught their family, or something, so they came around when I was younger, so I had no idea where they came from, I was just like, “Okay, that’s auntie, that’s uncle, that’s cousin,” I just never really knew how they connected. And then later in my life, they’d be like, “You know that’s not actually her sister?” I’m like, “No, actually, I didn’t know that.”
Saba Waheed: Her grandparent’s home was central to bringing the community together
Zayana Ross-Torrence: We call that “the party house” because that’s just the house that everyone comes to when they need solace, when they need just like love, they come there when there’s a party, we already know where it’s going to be.
Once Carson was built, they bought a house there, so they had that house for over 40 years.
It was a four-bedroom, now it’s like a bedroom and a den instead, but we kind of use it as a bedroom, depending on how many people come, we kind of just sleep on the floor, we sleep in the beds, we just find a way to you know share, sleep, and be together.
Veena Hampapur: Her grandparents played a huge role in her life.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: Even if I get into trouble, I know I can go to them. Even if I really don’t want to tell them what happened, I know I can go to them because they’re going to figure out what the best thing is for me. I know, for a fact, that they did their best to make sure that they were in my best interests; even if I didn’t want to hear it, it was always, always there. So I have no idea where I would be without them.
Veena Hampapur: Zayana’s grandmother was very involved in Carson life.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: My grandmother is just always doing something, she used to have us go to City Hall, she volunteers there, and she has her like meetings there, she’s in the Lion’s Club, so she’ll take part in that. She’s also doing Relay For Life, we used to go to the really big event, they had that at the Home Depot Center. And it was a 24-hour event, and all my cousins we would get up at like midnight, we’d go get the pizza… and we’d eat and walk around the track.
And then they had this lighting ceremony. My great-grandmother died of cancer, and we’d light a bag with her name on it, and just anyone we can think of that is suffering from cancer.
Saba Waheed: Having her grandparents around was especially meaningful because Zayana’s parents had to work a lot.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: My mom was trying to develop herself as a nurse and I was just like I want my mom all the time and she was always working and that was a bittersweet feeling just because I knew she had to work. So she is a nurse practitioner now.
My dad, he works at a refinery now. He went to Harbor College to do some of the qualifying classes. And now he’s like one of the supervisors, or something like that. So, that’s really cool. I got to see my parents work hard.
Veena Hampapur: One day, a charter school came to recruit for their high school program.
Zayana Ross:And so I brought home the application, and then I found out my friends were going to Carson High, and I was like, I don’t really want to apply.” And once my grandma saw me bring the application, she was like, “Just apply. Just apply, if you don’t get in, you don’t get in. But, just apply, go to the interview, and you know we’ll see where this goes.” And I’m like praying, I’m like, “Please, I really don’t want to go to this school.”
My dad got me some shoes, and I was like, “Thanks,” he was like, “I just wanted to congratulate you about getting in the school,” and I was like, “No,” and that was my first news knowing I was gonna go to that school.
Saba Waheed: The transition to the charter school was hard. Zayana had to leave her friends behind and adapt to a whole new curriculum.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: First year was tough, but I’m glad I went, that school definitely pushed me more, educationally, than I think a bigger school would have.
They were really, really big on going to college. One of my teachers was saying, “Okay, state schools, you don’t want to go to state schools, you want to stick with UCs, UCs only.” Because I had free lunch I had four waivers for the UCs; it was super expensive to apply, at the time.
I got into Riverside, and I got into UC-Santa Cruz. And then I looked at my financial aid package, and Santa Cruz was offering me a lot of money for the first year. And that was really how I ended up there. It was the financial aid.
Saba Waheed: UC Santa Cruz was a whole different world. It hit Zayana the first time she drove up for orientation.
Zayana Ross:I remember seeing so many stars, once we were in like the Merced area, about like four hours in. It was like probably my first time seeing stars, just like actually seeing constellations, and actually being able to look at the sky and say, “There are so many stars, compared to L.A.” and like all the smog that we have, all the pollution and stuff, like looking up, you confuse stars for planes, and I’m just like, “Wow, I actually get to see stars, and I wonder how clear the skies are in Santa Cruz,” so I started thinking that way.
Veena Hampapur: A move to Santa Cruz for college would not be complete without Zayana’s extended family.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: When I was actually moving in, everyone came, I think we even brought the dog. My grandparents on both sides, my mom and my dad’s side, they came, and my mom came, and my brother and my sister and even though it is a long drive, I really enjoyed just being with my family, I guess for what felt like the last time for a while.
My mom kind of like helped bringing my stuff in there and organizing it so it wasn’t everywhere.
And then my grandparents, they went to Costco and they got me a refrigerator and a microwave. My grandparents actually stayed a little longer. That’s when my roommates were like, “Wow, your grandparents are so awesome, they’re so nice.”
Saba Waheed: Zayana knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life – she would become a doctor.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: I wanted to be a pediatrician, in the beginning. And then I got sick my first year, and when I was in the hospital, I was seeing my nurses all the time.
And I had a nurse that was a travel nurse, and he was always by my bedside. Like, he would come and he would talk to me after he gave me my shot, and even if it was at like 5:00 in the morning, he would just “Are you okay? Do you need anything?” And that was a lot of the nurses I experienced there.
I was in the hospital for a week. I was a fairly critical and interesting case because I was 17, and so I was like, I had an adult-ish body, but I was still a pediatric patient. So I was in pediatric ICU, and being there is such a different feel because they saw me, and they brought me like a beanie like a volunteer knitted, and they were just trying to make me as comfortable as possible. It was my first time having to give myself shots. And they were the ones that really helped me get used to that change I was going to have to make in my life for three months.
I probably saw my doctor twice while I was there that I can remember. But he was always doing rounds he was always in a rush. My nurses always took time to think and to talk to me and try to make me feel as comfortable as possible. That flipped my view of what it’s like to be a nurse, and I was like, “I think I want to be a nurse.” I think a lot of people don’t realize the weight of nurses, and how important they are in hospitals, how important they are just in medicine, period, and how recognized they should be, in comparison to how recognized that they are not.
And my mom’s a nurse, so I always loved nurses, but I just didn’t realize how underappreciated they were until I was there, and I was in the hospital, and I was realizing, I was seeing my nurse so, so much more, she knew so much more about my case than my doctor did.
Veena Hampapur: Zayana was following in her mother’s footsteps; But she was also entering a discipline where women, particularly women of color, are seriously underrepresented.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: The opportunity should be there, if you want it. If I want to take on biology, I should have no problem, I should have no static, I should be able to get through it. It is a really difficult major, but I should have the resources that it takes, I should have the tutors, I should have available professors, my classes shouldn’t be so humongous, I should be able to access the things that I need to understand my material, and it wasn’t always that way.
I had around like 300 to 400 people in my beginning classes, and so that means we don’t get to see the professor, we have to really keep track of the TAs for the most part, and communicate with the TAs if we have a problem with our grade.
And I was with people in classes that didn’t look like me; I was in a predominantly white institution, and it felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there, it really did, for the first year, until I found out that there were other people that felt like I did. There were other black women in STEM, there were other just, people that felt like they weren’t supposed to be there, but they were steadfast in what they wanted to do, and they knew they wanted to stay. So, that was where my head was, and I had to kind of find people with the same outlook as me, and that’s really how I got through it.
The way that UC-Santa Cruz was set up, I felt like they weren’t really supporting their students of color the way that they should have. And a lot of times, a lot of Latinx people that I would talk to, they would be like, “Well, they just want us here because they want the 30% so that they can get the money.”
And I was just surprised about how many people felt that way // we had no professors in biology or in chemistry or math that were black, or that understood what we were going through, as students.
Saba Waheed: STEM, short for the sciences, technology, engineering and math) is notorious for its lack of diversity, particularly Black and Latinx students. And it doesn’t stop at getting into the program, Black and Latinx students are more likely to leave the major than their White counterparts.
Veena Hampapur: In 2016, only 12 percent of STEM graduates nationwide were Black students, a lower rate than any other racial group.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: I had a chemistry professor tell me, “If you can’t get through my class, you’re not going to be able to make it through the rest of this.”
I don’t think I ever will forget it, just because I was just so surprised that he was so willing to say something like that to me.
And I called my mom, I was so upset, and I was crying, and I said, “Why would he say that to me?” And she’s like, “Honestly, a lot of these things are meant to weed out people,” and she said, “Do you believe what he’s saying?” I said, “No.” “Do you think that you can finish?” I said, “Yes.” “Okay. And he’s the only one who teaches this class?” “Yes.” “Okay, well, I guess you’ll see him next quarter.” I said, “I guess I will.” So, my mom was really a big help, too, just getting me through UC-Santa Cruz.
My first year, I will say, was probably the most difficult, just because I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know what classes I was supposed to sign up for. I didn’t know anything about what it was like to qualify for my major, for my first year.
I finally like found my support system, the only way that we were gonna get through it was to be each other’s sanctuary, to really speak to each other and to talk about what we’re going to do, what we can do to stay. Or if it’s better for us to move universities, what does that look like? Some of my friends did end up leaving, and that was better for them.
Veena Hampapur: Zayana found support with her friends and through the African American Resource and Cultural Center.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: AARCC, that stands for African American Resource and Cultural Center, that was one of the reasons, honestly, why I stayed. That organization was such a really big impact to me.
That was where I felt like the resources were the strongest, for me; I know that that is not what everyone felt, but that was how I got the most involved with other students of color. And I really appreciated what that place was for me.
I had a director there every time that I had an issue with a professor, she would really just be the person that I spoke to.
I remember one year, someone told me that I wasn’t going to be able to qualify for my major. And I went to my director, and she said, “What can we do? What can we do? What are we going to do? Because I know you want to do this, and you’ve been talking about this for a long time.” She knew me for most of my time at Santa Cruz, so she knew what my passions were, she knew that I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, and she knew what I really wanted to do there.
The AARCC was super supportive, and understands what it’s like to not see other people in my major that I feel like I could relate to, to not see professors that were really understanding. So much of my heart is with the AARCC because if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would’ve stayed at UC-Santa Cruz, I don’t think I would have graduated with my Bachelor’s in Biology. I think I would have switched to something else, if I let other people tell me I wasn’t supposed to be there.
Saba Waheed: With the support of AARCC, Zayana made it through the program and graduated from UC Santa Cruz. Now, she had to figure out what to do next.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: Honestly, when I was about to graduate, I don’t think I was ready. At first, I was thinking about going to a community college to finish off a couple classes before I chose to go get my Master’s in Nursing.
And I was like, “I’m not doing a post-bac at UC-Santa Cruz, it’s way too expensive. When I go back home, I can go to a CC, it’s way less expensive
So I was looking up prices, and applying to CCs at the time. Then I got to know about the L.A. EMT program.
Veena Hampapur: At Zayana’s church, there were announcements for the LA EMT training program, run by WERC, the Worker Education and Resource Center.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: EMT stands for Emergency Medical Technician. EMTs are first aid, basic care. We are there to stop as much as we can, without administering medicine. The only things that EMTs can administer really are oxygen and glucose. We work on ambulances, some work as emergency room technicians, some are in the fire department.
Veena Hampapur: WERC’s training was hands-on, rigorous, and free, unlike other programs.
Zayana Ross-Torrence:This program came up, and it was free, and it was willing to pay me for the time that I was there. Most of their EMT programs, they are very quick, they’re around 6-8 weeks. This was 5 months, so my mom was like, “I don’t see why you wouldn’t take on that opportunity like this.” She had seen EMTs and she really just thought it would be a good idea if I had had some experience, just in emergency, or just working with other patients.
Saba Waheed: Another unique thing about the program, it was training all women.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: We were the first all-female cohort, in L.A., of EMT training.
A lot of people in my class were out of high school for a while, and they wanted to find an occupation that was fulfilling for them, or they just wanted to change the way that they were going, this EMT program was really helpful for them, and helpful for me. Just being like with all women, I’ve never had an experience like that before.
I’m not going to say there is usually men that do EMT work, because I think like everyone is capable, but that is who I see in the field. Like, as I’ve been working, or when we were doing ride-alongs, and stuff like that, that’s usually who was there, they were usually men.
Our class, also, was all women of color, so that was really awesome, too, because I also don’t see any people of color, men or women of color, in the field. It was really cool to actually be in a class like that, to talk to women that wanted to continue on to be EMTs, to continue on to be firefighters, or to be a physician assistant, or just to be in the field, or to continue on in the medical field, period. I wish I saw more women as EMTs, I really do. I met one yesterday, and that was really cool. But, other than that, I have yet to meet more women; usually, I see men.
And I have yet to meet a female firefighter in the field; I’ve had some in my class, they come and speak to us. So I’m just saying all-female cohort because that is a really big thing, as far as just the emergency world, especially in California, just emergency world, period. Like, there aren’t really many women that are working as EMTs or as firefighters.
I think a lot of people believe that women should be nurses in the medical field, when there are just so many other occupations that we could take on as medical professionals.
Veena Hampapur: When Zayana entered the field, she sensed that people didn’t expect an EMT to look like her. In California, two thirds of the EMT workforce is White and around 80% are male.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: No one’s ever overtly been like, “No, you can’t take care of me.”
It’ll just be like little things, like they’ll look more to my male counterpart, they’ll ask him, look at him with questions, instead of looking at me. Or even though I’ve spoke to them, they’ll speak at my male counterpart.
Part of it is because of white privilege. I believe that many people have gotten an opportunity because of how they look and how they present themselves. I wish that it wasn’t that way that’s less of an EMT situation, I think that’s more societal.
In the past, there was not really opportunity for people of color to become EMTs or paramedics. People were less trusting of people of color because of society, and so they don’t want that person to take care of them, they don’t want that person firefighting for them, they don’t want that person near their house, near their kids, or whatever that case may be.
Saba Waheed: Zayana is seeing a shift to diversify in the industry.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: Now it’s getting better. Actually, like L.A. County Fire is hiring Latinx-identifying and African American-identifying people right now, which is like, I think that’s amazing because I always see white men that are firefighters, almost every time that we are working with fire.
I can’t wait until I see another black firefighter, I don’t know when that will be, but the last one that I’ve seen was my paramedic teacher of my EMT program. And he really was such a big advocate for people of color working there, and for us, as women, to work as firefighters or as EMTs. He’s like, “Do you think there’s anyone out there that really looks like you?” And we said, “No,” we all agree.
And just to know that and to hear that, it’s really discouraging but, also, in a way, motivating because now we want to move forward, and we want to make that difference, even if it’s just one more, if it’s just two more, like we’re still pushing forward, and looking after each other to make sure that whoever’s coming up that can still have that opportunity, if they want it.
Veena Hampapur: Since Zayana finished her training program, she is working as an EMT, which comes with its own challenges.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: A really big stress about it is the hours, because sometimes you can get held over, and sometimes you can’t do it anything about it, you are waiting at hospitals, you’re waiting at convalescent homes, you’re waiting to be seen, waiting for a bed. So, that can be pretty stressful sometimes, just because you could get home late and have another shift the next day.
When your shift starts, you get a call, you go to that call, and then you pick up your patient. The waiting comes in with like, it depends on where you’re picking them up from. So, we had convalescence’s home pickup, but sometimes the communication is not there with where they’re going. So we ended up picking someone up from convalescence’s home, taking them to dialysis, and then they were like, “They’re not supposed to come today,” we took them back to the convalescence’s home. Then we took them back because they were supposed to be at the dialysis.
So, sometimes there’s a lot of circling, and sometimes it’s just waiting at the hospitals, like if you’re waiting, there’s no beds available at the emergency room that we’re at, we just have to wait until there’s a bed available, or until they’re ready for this patient. There’s also waiting, as far as if we’re somewhere that the patient is like, “I kind of want to go, but I really don’t,” sometimes that happens, and that is what it is, we can’t do anything about that. Some patients choose not to go, and that’s okay.
I kind of wish that EMTs were appreciated more, just because I think that sometimes EMTs are ignored at hospitals. I think that’s like a really big thing about me being an EMT and wanting to become a nurse is that I’ll understand what this experience is like, and I understand what it’s like to wait, and to have information that’s mixed because someone’s not communicating. I think that’s a really good experience to be able to take into the medical field, into a higher level of medical professional.
Saba Waheed: Zayana realized that connecting with patients is an important part of patient care, a lesson she had first discovered when she was hospitalized in college.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: While we’re in the ambulance, I am able to talk to the patient, and get to know what actually happened to them, what are they going through. And after we’re done with the assessment, I can just get to know a little bit about them while we’re riding, “How’s your family? Are they coming?” And if they don’t have family, we just kind of try to ask like, “What can we do.”
I just talked to this man that, he had got into a car accident, and his fiance had passed away in the accident, but he was just still willing to talk to me, willing to share his story. He did not know me, this was his first time ever meeting me, he only rode with me for maybe like 30 minutes that day. And he was ready and willing to share his story, and to tell me what it was like to be in probably one of the worst situations he’s ever been in.
And he was still ready to take on the world. It’s just rewarding to know that you are doing what you can, you’re doing the best that you can for this person, for this person that has a family, or that may not even have a family anymore, with them, or that doesn’t have anybody to depend on, you are there, and you might be the first and only person that they’ve seen that day, besides their nurses.
And I think that’s a really important part of being EMTs, we can’t really do a whole lot to help with your pain, as far as giving you medication and stuff like that, but we can support you, with our ride, and it can be really, really rewarding because a lot of them, they’ll just say thank you because you spoke to them.
Veena Hampapur: One of the scariest pick-ups, hit way too close to home.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: One time, when I was on a ride-along, my grandpa had just gotten picked up by another ambulance. My family called me and said, “Okay, they just got picked up by the same company that you’re riding with.”
So he had gotten transported, and one of my patients ended up being at the same hospital as my grandpa, so I ran into my grandpa, and I just I couldn’t take it. Like, I saw him, and he was doing fine, but it was just the thought of him having to go through emergency, and I was just scared. I thought back to what it’s like to be in my occupation, and to have families look at me and depend on me, and want me to do what I can to help their family member.
So, it can be stressful, but I always think of the positives of the situation.
It’s definitely worth getting the experience, this is my first time actually having to deal with patients, and actually get to do my own assessments, and work through them, without having someone, I guess, over me, until we get to the hospital.
And I definitely think this will help me in the long run, to become the nurse that I want to be.
Saba Waheed: All of this comes back to her grandparents, who raised her to be the type of person who looks out for others.
Zayana Ross-Torrence: I will say a really strong thing that I learned from them is to take care of those around you, to take care of your community, to remember where you came from. They just taught me so much about loving other people, about taking care of people around you.
I truly appreciate my family/not-family for who they are and where I am right now. I don’t think that I would be the EMT that I am, or have the desires that I do for my future, if it wasn’t for them. I don’t think that I would want to continue and to kind of like pass the torch, if it wasn’t for them. And I appreciate every second, even the things that I didn’t want to hear, I appreciate every second of it.
Veena Hampapur: A special thanks to Zayana Ross-Torrence for sharing her story. To learn more about the Worker Education and Resource Center and their workforce development programs like the EMT program, you can visit their website
Saba Waheed: This week’s show was produced by Veena Hampapur, Saba Waheed, Amy Zhou, and Pam Gwen. Editing by Veena Hampapur and D’angelo Jones.
Veena Hampapur: Thank you to Kim Woods and Diane Factor from WERC for setting up this interview.
Saba Waheed: You’re listening to Re:Work, a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK
Veena Hampapur: Visit our website at or Facebook at forward slash reworkradio. You can also find us on Twitter and Instagram at rework underscore radio.
Saba Waheed: ‘Til next time, rethink rework.