Living in the 3%: A Young Latina's Engineer Story - Diana Iracheta

My name is Diana Iracheta, I am 23 years old and I am a Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineer. I graduated with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Northern Illinois University in May of 2019. During my studies I have been part of Latinos Unidos STEM club and have been awarded a couple of scholarships, one earned through a Pageant competition in 2016. I currently work at Methode Electronics as a Manufacturing Engineer. I recently launched my own blog: “The Life of a Latina Engineer” where I share anecdotes and many other resources in hopes of inspiring and supporting other students in STEM. One of my goals with this blog is to start a scholarship program in fall 2020 to help other Hispanic students. Also, I would also like to provide support for those talented and motivated students who are often marginalized.

As immigrants we often stumble across people that catalog us or make us think we can’t be successful. They make conclusions about our potential based on stereotypes, our situations, or our background. Such negative stereotypes are common for Latinx students. I want to change that. We are immigrants, our native language might not be English and our culture is different, but young and aspiring students should know that none of these conditions are valid reasons to not be successful. In fact, such aspects of who we are, are actually our strengths. We see our parents give everything to see us happy and to have a better life. They work hard, sacrifice time, and even their own dreams for us. It is the time to say that, we as Latinos, are here to stay and pursue our most ambitious dreams. I would like my story’s foundation to focus on breaking stereotypes, not only as a young Mexican immigrant, but also as a female. I always wanted to prove to myself and show the world I could be successful. Running into obstacles only fed my desire to succeed.

I moved to the United States when I was 12 years-old along with my parents and siblings. I barely knew English and I was very, very shy. I was made fun of and I had a hard time fitting in due to my cultural differences. I was also questioned about my potential. I was told I couldn’t be good in English because it was my second language. I was told that I was unlikely to keep good grades or maintain a 4.0 GPA because of my background. I had many reasons to doubt my future success because of outside influences. In spite of that, my support team was what always kept me believing in myself. At home I was taught that my heart and mind could take me anywhere, it was limitless. As a young girl, my parents always told me that I could accomplish anything that I am willing to work hard for. I had the best support team. I was never told that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. It was until we migrated to the United States, that I encountered a world that told me otherwise. By then it was too late – the foundation that my parents built within was too strong. It was too late for anyone else to tell me I couldn’t do something because I had an accent, because I was Hispanic, or because I was a female. I wasn’t having it! That was my biggest motivation. That was what drove me to push harder, to try harder, to do things far beyond what was expected of me. Why not? Why should everything that makes me a minority stop me? I love everything that makes me a “minority”. My parents were always there to tell me that everything I could think of, I could do and more.

It took me forever to pick a career because I was curious about many pathways. I was a senior in high school when I began to contemplate the idea of becoming an engineer. A physics class sparked my interest, which became my introduction into STEM fields. I suggest that all aspiring academics take classes outside of their comfort zone. Especially if you are not sure what to study. You may not find the exact career path by taking one class, but you can find something you enjoy and go from there. I knew I liked problem solving, which was important because I began college knowing that I wanted to pursue a career in the sciences. Eventually I found my way to mechanical engineering, which took time. I learned to pay attention to my interests and figured out my path slowly by having conversations with professors about my thoughts. Young students must remind themselves that choosing a career path cannot be rushed and that exploration is important to the overall journey.

I wasn’t always successful during my academic career. The transition from high school to college was difficult. I felt specifically challenged by a calculus-based physics class I took my very first semester. Classes weren’t challenging, but tests were difficult for me. I was discouraged and felt disappointed in myself. What really helped me was having a mentor to support my thinking and directing my progress. Having a female mentor in the sciences encouraged me to open up to her about my struggles. I felt supported, which motivated me to keep going. Physics was hard but is wasn’t hard enough to stop me from reaching for my goals.

Through the years, as a dedicated student and professional in the field, I’ve come to realize that you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room to be successful. I wasn’t a perfect student and I’m not the most experienced engineer. But I definitely have passion for what I do and that pushes me to work hard. My work ethic pushes me to seek to learn more and sharpen my skills. My boss and coworkers see my positive and energetic attitude and recognize my contributions. To me, doing my best and trying my hardest is what makes me the best. As a female in engineering school I always felt that I was missing Latina role models who were also engineers. I needed a fellow female engineer student that I could relate to. I was not the only female engineer in my classes, but we were definitely not enough. To be honest, being a strong academic can be lonely sometimes. Other engineer students seemed to stay in their own small groups, which meant that strong support was difficult to find. I am even more grateful for the few friends that I made during engineering school. The ones that didn’t treat me different because of being a female. For those reasons, I would like to inspire and support young Latinas who are beginning a path that I was able to conquer.

Hard work is expected as an engineering student. Such expectations must be met with organization and hours of preparation for exams. I clearly remember the first time I was able to score a 100% on an exam. I remember walking into my professor’s office to ask what my test results were. He didn’t have to look for my exam. He knew and remembered that I had gotten a 100%. I was ecstatic! My professor and his wife were my biggest role models during my years as a college student. They were my biggest supporters in my academic career. They also made me believe in power couples. They were both intelligent and successful. I consider myself and my fiancé a younger version of them (my fiancé is a biomedical engineer).

What is the best advice I could give? Never settle! Always look to improve yourself, to reach for things that will be challenging. Difficult accomplishments are the most rewarding! I knew it was going to be a lot of work when I first began my career, but I saw it as a challenge that brought much pride along the way. I accepted the difficulty and committed to face it with dedication and hard work. Every time I found myself doubting my abilities because assignments or coursework were difficult, I reminded myself that it was part of growing and learning difficult topics. Don’t be afraid to purposefully choose something that might be challenging. What matters most is that you enjoy what you are studying. You must find it interesting because it will keep you curious to learn more. Also, always look for resources. Never stop looking for scholarships and never think that you can handle things alone.

Know that there is always help for whatever you’re having trouble with. We are in an era where Latinx students across all disciplines have many avenues of support. There are national organizations, local ones, and fellow students that create clubs, groups, and nonprofits that focus on guidance and support. There are also many free services on college and university campuses. Lastly, don’t be discouraged by negative experiences! Setback feel horrible, but they’re a natural part of doing something amazing. Find support because it is out there. Research everything you might want to purse and give it everything you have alongside those that will encourage you along the way. I developed my blog in hopes of creating resources for Latinx STEM students. After a couple of months, I am overwhelmed with joy because of the tremendous support that exists for students pursuing STEM degrees. I am inspired to help build the next generation of Latina engineers.