Rice Professor Richard Tapia was among select company when he traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to accept a Hispanic Heritage Award.
But his mom wouldn’t have been surprised in the least.
“She would be happy, but she would say, ‘Well, Richard, I expected that,'” he said.
Tapia, University Professor at Rice as well as the Maxfield-Oshman Professor in Engineering and director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education, was among seven recipients of the prestigious honor Sept. 29. Joining him onstage at the 22nd annual ceremony in the Senate Russell Building on Capitol Hill were Grammy-winning rock band Maná, artist Romero Britto, boxer Oscar de la Hoya, singer Olga Tañon and New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez. Also honored was Dora the Explorer, the animated star of her namesake PBS television series for children.
Rice undergraduate Carolina White was also honored at the event with a National Youth Award for Engineering and Mathematics. The engineering major is a native of Friendswood, Texas.
Tapia knew last year he’d been nominated for the honor but was delighted to learn a few weeks ago of his selection as winner of the Hispanic Heritage Award for Math and Science.
“I’m excited. I think it’s neat,” he said before heading to Capitol Hill. “There is a component of going to this ceremony that’s really important — this award isn’t just for me. I’m going for the group I represent and for the things I care about, which are outreach, K-12 education, diversity and students.
“Somebody recognized that I’ve done things of high value, even if they’re not high visibility, and that means a great deal to me.”
Tapia’s late mom, Magda, who set high expectations for Richard and his siblings, would be delighted for him, but otherwise nonplussed, he said. “She was from Mexico, never went to college, but she always taught us that ‘good’ was not just for our neighborhood,” he said. “She felt you always strive to achieve across a bigger area.”
The awards were created by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to commemorate the creation of Hispanic Heritage Month and to serve the mission of the foundation to identify, inspire, prepare and position Latino leaders in the classroom, community and workforce.
“The honorees serve as role models not only for Latinos but for all Americans,” said Pedro Jose Greer Jr., the foundation’s chairman.
Tapia, born in Los Angeles to parents who emigrated from Mexico as teenagers to seek educational opportunities, was the first in his family to attend college and received undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees at UCLA. He has authored and co-authored two books and more than 100 mathematical research papers and was the first Hispanic elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
Tapia is also known at Rice and beyond as a crusader for the advancement of minorities, and his efforts were honored recently by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.