This past month, I was asked to be a guest speaker at the First Annual Conference hosted by The Sideline Project: “A Latinx Experience: Rompiendo Barreras”.
This event focused on reaching out to Latinx students and providing them with information and guidance in multiple areas such as scholarships, College 101, emotional support, etc. I personally participated in a STEM panel along with 4 other students or professionals in various STEM fields such a math and programming. I felt really grateful to be able to share my experiences and provide tips or support to other Latinx students.
So below, I decided to share some of the questions asked during that event and some that we were not able to cover, due to time, in hopes to provide more information and share it outside of this event.
Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and what your position at your workplace is?
My name is Diana Iracheta Martinez. I am 23 years old. I am a Mexican immigrant. I moved to the USA at age 12 only speaking Spanish. I studied Mechanical Engineering at Northern Illinois University. I graduated in May 2019. I currently work at Methode Electronics as a Manufacturing Engineer.
What inspired you to go into the field that you are in? Or what motivated you to pursue higher education?
My parents were the biggest influence in wanting to pursue higher education. Both of them had completed a college education in our home country, so they always raised me in a matter where I would look up to being a professional. However, deciding what to study was very challenging. I always had a liking for math, but I was not aware of what I could do with that. I had to explore many different majors, such as nursing and business, since they were popular careers. However, my interest in math and problem solving persisted and eventually guided me to Physics, then it turned into general engineering, to finally mechanical engineering. I think my dad, being an engineer himself (systems and electronics), helped me be aware of the possibilities of being an engineer. If it wasn’t for that, I doubt I would have had enough information about what being an engineer was in order to decide to study that.
What were some of the financial obstacles that you faced while pursuing higher education?
I was privileged to not have to work during my college years thanks to my parents. However, in order to minimize expenses, I would live with $60 a week. This allowance would cover a full tank of gas (since I was a commuter) food for times where I had to stay late or couldn’t pack lunch, and any other misc personal expenses such as personal hygiene products that my family wouldn’t regularly include in their grocery lists ( feminine products, razors, etc). I would watch my family help me tremendously by paying for school and I tried to keep my other expenses at the minimum, since they also provided me with that allowance. Once I began working internships in the summer, I would save up all my money to ration it between the 2 semesters to take over the extra expenses mentioned above.
What was your biggest obstacle majoring in STEM during your college days?
Feeling like I was not smart enough. Feeling like I would never be a good engineer or have a successful future as one. There would be times where I would read and re-read and read the chapter, question or even the answers over and over again, and I simply couldn’t understand what was in front of me. It was a feeling of defeat. It would bring all those negative thoughts of not being good enough or smart enough. But I got to tell you… read it one more time. Do more practice problems. Take a break and go back at it. During the 5 years that it took me to get my engineering degree, I learned that there is simply not one thing that you cannot understand or do. We just have to have patience and keep trying. This is why is so important to go to class, take notes, review the notes (rewrite them too!), do practice problems, do more, do the assignments, re-do them! Even the most impossible thing will become crystal clear if you put all you got. And if you forget later, that’s okay! that’s why we got books. All my coworkers have their old books they refer to all the time. All you need to have is a problem solving attitude, the rest will be right in front of you.
What are some ways that you all believe we can include more Latinx’s in STEM?
I think the most crucial step is to educate students about the careers and possibilities in STEM. There are so many careers and so many things that one can do with a degree, that many times we simply don’t consider them because we don’t know them or what we can do with them. The second thing is having role models to look up. Role models that are involved in the community to a level where young students can connect with them and reach out. I don’t believe having met a Latina engineer in person. I adore the women in the book and movie “Hidden Figures”, but they don’t exactly represent what I feel would be my ideal Latina Engineer role model, especially because, while they are a minority, they are not Latinas. This brings me back to the inspiration of why I created this blog and why I think us Latinas have so much more to give.
What are some ways that you believe Latinx parents can better support their children who are interested in going into STEM?
By not feeling intimidated by a language barrier. Parents are our number one support and we want them to be there for everything. I can count the times that my mom visited my school: 2. Once for my fiancé’s graduation and a second time for mine. I would have loved to give my mom a tour of the engineering building and show her where I spent most of my time while at school. And I am sure I am not the only one. Us as Latinos, we are really close to our family and the thing that we would love the most is sharing this journey with our parents.
Although we see a huge gap and lack of representation of Latinx in STEM fields, the percentage is even lower for Latinas specifically. What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced being a woman of color in your field?
I think there were two things that really challenged me while pursuing engineering. The first one was not feeling like I belonged there. Being a minority was obvious, but the way my classmates reacted was what made it an issue. Nobody (male students) would sit next to me or talk to me. It was as if they didn’t validate me as good enough for engineering or at least that’s how they made me feel. It wouldn’t be until I would prove myself with good grades or completed homework that they would show some interest and only for their own benefit. If we were working in teams (which I always ended up being the group leader), I would have the hardest time making them cooperate and communicate. And it was like that on every single team up to Senior Design (where I was lucky enough to have an awesome team btw). However, I got to say this is not an issue at work and I am so glad that is the case. Maybe it was just the unprofessionalism and disinterest of the younger students compared to the people at work.
The second thing were my own insecurities. Being a girl, my dad never tried to show me how to do “manly” things, so I was left with very little knowledge on common “guy” things such as cars, small house maintenance and hands on skills. This made me feel like I was left out or that there were too many little things that I should have known because all the other students knew. This made me doubt myself and be scared of asking questions. It was until my last semesters at college (after having a couple of internships) that I felt comfortable asking and trying to get trained in how to use machines and start to get hands on.
Is there anything different that you would do if you were to re-do your journey?
I think this last question applied more towards how to complete our education. To me, staying at a community college was a mistake. They trap you in and convince you that you should complete an associates degree, making you take more classes with them. Therefore, I would have taken only the classes I really needed and moved on.
The second thing would have been to begin doing internships earlier. While I was able to graduate with 2 summer internships and a signed salary contract waiting for me as soon as I graduated, I think I would have learned so much more by having started interning since my first year in college.
I hope that these answers can help students that are currently thinking of engineering or are studying engineering already. While I wasn’t a first generation attending college, I was first generation to study in the USA. The college system was so different than in our home country. There were so many questions and so many steps. I was fortunate to always have my parents support. My dad trying to help me as much (like taking me to visit colleges and reminding me to submit FAFSA when the time came around) and my mom by always feeding me and making sure I wore warm clothes, or the right shoes for the snow, or listening to me complain about my classmates. They never doubted me. They never discouraged me. They never stopped me from thinking I could be anything and everything I wanted to be in the world. Lately, I have been really into NASA, and astronauts and space. I have been reading hidden figures, I even got a Katherine Johnson barbie! And guess what? my parents are still there telling me I can be anything.
This is a collage they made to show their support: