For More Latina Engineers - Maritza Sanchez
I was the shy nerdy girl who liked school. I’ve always liked that about myself. I remember doing competitions in my head to see if I could finish writing down multiplication tables faster than other students in the class. I often won because I practiced a lot. These are my earliest memories of math. I’ve always loved math, but had no idea what I could do with such interest. Now I can see that simply liking math and those playful games in my head were the beginning of an amazing journey that I’m still living today. Soon I will be an engineer, which is a proud accomplishment as a Latina. Few Latinas take the path I’ve taken. We need more! At the moment I’m the only Latina in the engineer department who is pursuing a Ph.D. in the material science. I come from a very humble upbringing and positive experiences in school early on that I believe contributed to my current successes. I’ve learned valuable lessons that I would like to share in hopes of inspiring other young aspiring Latinas to dream big.
I am living a dream life. I truly love what I study and know that I will make a difference in the world. I specifically study ceramic materials. Materials science is the foundation to everything because everything has a surface. Part of what I study contributes to the development of new ceramic materials for extreme environments. We aim to improve existing ceramic materials and develop new materials that don't harm our planet. These materials can be applied in aerospace and energy fields, and endless other places. I work with the very best and brightest scholars and professors who keep me learning everything I will need to know to develop my expertise. I like the idea of someday becoming an expert. Also, I am surrounded by other aspiring engineers that will contribute to the world in their own way, many of which a close friends. Getting here was not easy! I struggled along the way, but a few unexpected decisions, experiences, people stand out that really made a difference in my life.
I can now see that even simple choices mattered greatly. The first thing that stands out was where I sat in school. It may sound unimportant, but it turned out to be a choice that shaped how much I liked school. For as far back as I can remember I deliberately sat next to students that I knew were doing well and who paid attention. It was a natural thought, but doing so pushed me to pay attention in class. Friendships naturally developed with students who wanted to learn. They were smart, and a result I always had smart friends around me encouraging me to do well. Not all students cared about school. This was my way of not being distracted by them. My goal was to understand all that I could so that homework came easier. After all, the homework was usually practice for exams. My parents instilled in me positive habits that also made a difference. I was used to getting home, eating, and starting on homework right away. In my home low grades were not acceptable. I wanted me want to work hard and make my parents proud. Homework was my way of showing them that I cared about school.
I always did math homework first. Spanish was my first language, which meant that numbers made more sense to me early on. Math is such a universal language anyone can understand. I liked the thought of challenging myself and figuring out math problems. I struggled with subjects like history because they were about memorization. History homework came last. I didn't know it at the time, but I was building habits that are still part of me. School was pretty easy early on. I was lucky to have become a part a program called AVID in middle school. That program introduced me to the general idea that college comes after high school. The purpose of doing well in school was to become a college student. Conversations and activities were about college, which meant that I was also hanging around other students that were thinking about college early on. AVID also introduced me to AP classes, which became extremely important in high school.
There is much more pressure in high school. The classes get harder and the projects become more complex. The idea of college begins to set in, while still being lost about career choices. The good news was that I was doing well. My strategy was to work on assignments early on when everything was still fresh in my head. Class notes and asking teachers questions helped tremendously. I saw some of my friends doing homework or assignments at the very last minute. They struggled to remember and make sense of everything covered in class. My strategies throughout high school were working; the only problem was that everything was a bit tedious. I made two very important decisions in high school that definitely led to future successes. I didn’t do very much socially as a freshman in high school because I was trying to focus on doing well in school, but this changed once I started joining school clubs. I had a diverse group of friends. Some of them invited me to become part of the schools’ ASB club, which led me to planning for dances, events, rallies, and fundraisers. Suddenly school was also social.
Some days were very long, but they were also fun. Because I was involved in events, it was easy to stay away from the wrong crowds. I caught up on schoolwork on weekends, but I didn't mind. Joining social clubs in high school was a great decision because it made each day different. High school was no longer about studying and doing the same thing everyday. Each event brought new experiences with friends. The key was managing my time. I was always busy, but it was better than being bored at home doing nothing. I tried to get involved with more campus activities. I joined the math club and at some point I was in charge of programming the schools marquee, which I thought was cool. I was still shy, but was slowly getting out of my shell. I was also involved in the Psychology club as a peer leader, which meant that I was helping other students with math homework. Each new event became something to look forward to with my friends.
The second decision I made was getting to know my teachers. I was the type to ask questions after class. Some teachers took their time answering my questions because they knew that I was paying attention and that I wanted to do well. There was one particular conversation with one particular teacher that I will never forget. Mr. Lopez noticed that I was good at math and told me that he was surprised that I wasn't pursing a major in STEM fields, which are about math and science. I think that he mentioned that he was originally a civil engineer but decided to pursue teaching. He changed my life. During that conversation he introduced me to the field of engineering for the very first time. I was intrigued and wanted to hear more. I was a senior by then and had already applied to colleges as a psychology major because I liked it and I was exposed to it I’d say. Mr. Lopez took the time to show me what engineers do and different kinds of engineering fields. That one conversation planted a seed that is still blooming today.
I was on my way to college, excited to move out and become independent. I was a bit cocky and only applied to UC campuses, however, I was not accepted into the most competitive universities. I think this happened because I did not spend enough time developing my personal statement. Teachers reviewed what I wrote, but I should have dedicated more time to it. Nonetheless, I still had options and decided on the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). I was on my way to experiencing life after high school. After all, AVID taught me to see myself as a college student. I felt ready, but I wasn't. I was seriously struggling to adjust the first few semesters. All of the drastic changes really hot me hard. First of all, I was homesick. I missed my family. Before moving out, I didn't quite understand how close my family was. I began missing them the very first day. I was lucky because my best friend also decided to attend to UCSB. We took long train rides on weekends so that we could spend time with our families. This helped enormously, but the problem was that it took away from study time. To make things worse UCSB is on a quarter system, which meant courses are 10 weeks long. There was no room to fall behind, but the pace was overwhelming. We were often covering entire chapters in one class session. Everything was moving fast. I decided to ask professors for help, but that did not work out as expected.
I was receiving very short, one or two sentence responses from professors when I asked for clarification on concepts covered in class. I kept walking away just as confused. I was discouraged and felt forced to figure things out on my own. This added to my overall struggles. I can now see that trying to figure things out on my own was a big mistake. I should’ve pushed myself to ask for more help from friends and campus resources. And to make things even harder, transferring to the engineering department was beginning to feel impossible. They are extremely competitive. I sent countless emails to the department and researched requirements to get accepted into their program. I managed to get into some introductory engineering classes by showing up on the first day, but not as an official engineer major. I was slowly getting adjusted and doing much better. Adding more study time to read and review notes helped. I spent countless hours in the library and with friends studying so that I could do well and improve my grades. I was more fascinated with the idea of becoming an engineer, no matter how hard. However, getting into the engineering department was not happening. I decided to come up with plan B, but I was told that it was a bad idea every time I shared my thoughts.
My plan was to apply and transfer to a Cal State campus. Among teachers and friends this was horrible idea because UC institutions are known to be better schools than Cal States. UC institutions are much harder to get into and they focus on research, which is big deal in higher education. I heard over and over that I would regret my decision. Still, I followed through with my plan by researching the transfer and application process. I was accepted into California State University Los Angeles (CSULA), as an official engineer major. Doing so became one the best decisions I’ve ever made. I was hesitant because of what I’d heard, but I heard was so wrong. I learned that CSULA is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), which means that they predominately serve Latino students. HSIs have additional resources that are equipped with understanding and supporting how we learn. Interactions with professors allowed me to see major differences across campuses. Professors at this new campus took the time to answer my questions and were informative about opportunities on campus to the get involved in activities beyond the classroom. I was beginning to see the difference between student centered educational institutions, which are also called teaching institutions and research-based institutions are UC campuses.
I was happy. I was being challenged in class, but I didn't mind doing the work. Honestly, engineer courses are difficult. They require much discipline and study time to understand concepts deeply. CSULA was also on a quarter system, but ongoing conversations with professors about course content were making a huge difference. Through these conversations I also learned about scholarship and research opportunities. In addition to all of these upgrades I also realized that there was a Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) chapter at CSULA. They are all about empowering and supporting aspiring Latino and Latina engineers. I was first introduced to them at UCSB, and remember feeling a warm welcome, but I didn't make the time to attend their meetings consistently. I knew I was not going to make the same mistake again. Getting involved with them made college life fun, rewarding, and filled with amazing experiences. Our “Noches de Sciencias” became awesome memories that served as study jams sessions and nights spent time with good friends. I saw the value in what they did for the community and me. I became more involved and looked forward to conferences each year. Being surrounded by established Latino/a engineers and aspiring students was always so empowering.
SHPE also exposed me to opportunities to present my research and networking events that inspired me to pursue graduate school.
I was first introduced to research at UCSB. A Ph.D. student helped me understand the project being studied in the lab and became an important mentor along the way. Here is where I was first exposed to the science of materials. My mentor took the time to share her thoughts and life as a graduate student. I remember hearing her describe her work. I could easily see that she loving it. She was passionate and shared her research goals. These experiences pushed me to want more research experiences of my own. Additional lab experiences at CSULA helped me achieve that goal. With the help of the National Science Foundation (NSF), I’ve traveled to different research labs across the United States every summer to build my skills as a researcher. NSF provided the funds that helped me grow as a scholar. I was burned out by the time graduation was approaching. My senior design project was contributing to many sleepless nights, but I knew it was all worth doing. Although I was tired, I was still filled with a strong desire to finish strong.
Graduation finally came and I remember feeling relief, fulfilled, and proud to be first in my family to obtain an undergraduate degree. I remember thinking that my accomplishment was all for them, my family. We celebrated this grand occasion, but knew that I wasn't done. The next goal was to pursue a Ph.D. for them again, for me, and definitely my Latino Community. University of California, San Diego (UCSD) would become my new home. I would like to say that becoming a graduate student was easy, but that wasn't the case. I’ve been challenged like never before. I’ve had to readjust once again. I seriously struggled with stress early on. Classes were a whole new level of learning and I also had to take on new research responsibilities. In addition, I was living in a whole new environment. Worst of all, grandma passed away during my first year, which made my ability to focus even more difficult. All of these issues were contributing factors, but imposture syndrome was yet another factor that I did not see coming. Sometimes I felt that I didn't belong in such an outstanding program. I was surrounded by the very best minds. Their accomplishments and knowledge base was intimidating. They had several years and research experience and appeared to know so much more. I was the youngest, and also knew that I was struggling. Did I belong? Was I good enough to succeed among the very best? These were reoccurring thoughts that kept me from working at my true potential.
I attended a workshop that was organized by SHPEtina, which focused on supporting Latinas in STEM fields. Hearing them speak was amazing. For the very first time, I didn't feel alone. I felt a strong support and inspiring understanding as they described imposture syndrome. I was able to gain new perspective about unfair comparisons that I was unintentionally making. Such new perspectives helped me readjust and settle in with my new role as a Ph.D. student. I was back on track to pursue my dreams to make a difference in the world. I’ve learned to love research because it aims to solve real-world problems, but I’m conflicted. I’ve falling in love with teaching. Assistant teaching is a part of my program. I was responsible for teaching an introductory engineering course that helped me realize the importance of contributing to this and the next generation of engineers, especially as a Latina. I recently learned that there might be way to blend, both research and teaching as a pursue career choices. I am excited for my future.
I’ve earned a master’s degree along the way and I’m now on my fourth year of my Ph.D. program. Amazing professors and peers have played an important role in my growth as a scholar. It’s been challenging, but I’ve also felt empowered to stay dedicated because of family and friends. The love and support from my family has fed my drive and ambition to become a change agent. They’ve stilled in me principles about the importance of education and hard work that have kept me determined through the years. Such principles have carried me during my lowest moments and alongside my greatest victories. I feel that I’ve carried their principles and my Hispanic community throughout every milestone and success. I’m eternally grateful to all of them. SHPE has also significantly contributed my commitments. I’ve become deeply involved with them because they aim to support aspiring Latino and Latina academics as I do. I’ve made life-long friends along the way. We actively volunteer and plan events that inspire future engineers, doctors, mathematicians and scientists who will also make a difference in the world. Some events involve all day activities for hundreds of students interested in STEM majors. I remind them to dream big, and that they can achieve anything they set their minds to. Struggles and hard work are part of the process. But the many beautiful experiences make up for the difficult times. I feel profoundly grateful because I am living out my dreams. My way of showing my gratitude will be to support and empower this and future generations of Hispanic engineers.