Discovering My Thirst for Challenges - Cynde Mercado

I am a water engineer. I’m extremely proud of the hard work it has taken to get here. To be honest, I wasn't sure I was going to college when I was in high school. As a little girl, I wasn’t exposed to the idea of pursuing a career as an engineer. I’d never seen a Latina engineer. I loved numbers, and that’s all I knew. Teachers often told me that I should become a math teacher, but I never saw myself as one. Although people around me saw my potential, I had to discover it for myself. It took time for me to go from doubtful to driven, and from unsure to confident. I’ve learned important lessons that have allowed me to pursue and achieve major life goals. After much contemplation, I realize that school programs, making important connections, and family have gotten me to where I am today. Still, my path hasn’t been a fairytale story. I felt so lost early on.

"To be honest, I wasn't sure I was going to college when I was in high school. As a little girl, I wasn’t exposed to the idea of pursuing a career as an engineer. I’d never seen a Latina engineer".

High school was uneventful and even boring during my freshman and sophomore year. School was about going to class, trying to pay attention, doing work, and going home. The one thing that was important was that I joined the PUENTE program during my freshmen year. Their goal was for us to go to college, which at the time I knew nothing about. Every conversation was about preparing us for life after high school. Being around other students who wanted to go to college helped me want the same for myself. We developed a shared vision that was about becoming successful through a college education. I still didn't know what that meant for me, but the activities and social aspects of the programs made high school fun. Suddenly, I was interested in becoming part of other programs such as Associated Student Body and the Dance team. There was something always going on. I went from uninvolved to very involved. I enjoyed anything that dealt with community events and coordinating activities for students behind the scenes. I was still unsure about my future, but high school was no longer boring. More importantly the people and clubs that I joined became an important guide for me. As I look back, high school was still an important building block for future victories. Despite that, I was uncertain of next steps.

I loved math. Teachers even encouraged me to transition into AP math classes. However, I wasn't a good writer. This became a big deal when it was time to write a personal statement and fill out college applications. I was hesitant to ask for help from counselors and friends because I was super shy, which was a big mistake. Asking for help is so important! Also, I made the mistake of assuming that my family wouldn’t be able to afford college. I didn't know that financial aid and grants could have covered my tuition. All of this made applying for college stressful. The potential was there, but I only considered California State Universities (CSU). Still, I’m glad that I still pushed through to become a college student.

"The one thing that was important was that I joined the PUENTE program during my freshmen year. Their goal was for us to go to college, which at the time I knew nothing about. Every conversation was about preparing us for life after high school. Being around other students who wanted to go to college helped me want the same for myself".

I had few options, but I chose the furthest college from home. My parents never sheltered me and supported my decision. I was actually excited about the unknown. I was excited up until the day before I moved. I cried all night the day before, but I was determined to experience life beyond my home. It was yet another program that enlightened my thoughts and experiences. I started working for a program called STEM² where I became a peer mentor and met other students pursuing STEM fields. The goal of the program was to help students transfer to four-year universities with the intention of pursuing degrees in STEM. Although I loved numbers, I still had no idea what I could do with math. Still, working for this program also introduced me into the STEM fields and strategies that would also help me succeed in all classes. Particularly, this program exposed me to statistics about the lack of Latinos and Latinas in STEM fields. Those statistics made me angry and stuck with me. That anger was turning into an inner drive that would push me to develop high aspirations.

"This program exposed me to statistics about the lack of Latinos and Latinas in STEM fields. Those statistics made me angry and stuck with me. That anger was turning into an inner drive that would push me to develop high aspirations".

It was an environmental studies class I took sophomore year that would change my life forever. This class is what led me to one question; how can I combine math with water? This was such a simple question, but it led me to a new love, certainty, and an undeniable conviction to learn more. The class discussed water issues that affect the world. I was deeply intrigued by the idea that we often don’t consider where water comes from when we open the faucet. What moved it? What did it take to get there? And it’s incredible to know that it’s done for millions of people. I wanted to know more and more. My future became even clearer with an introduction to engineering course, which allowed me to learn about different type of engineering fields. Here is where I learned that civil engineering deals with water issues. Water also had significance outside the classroom. Trips to Mexico with my family also gave me perspective on the importance of water. I’d heard stories about trucks having to deliver water to impoverished areas. My grandmother had to take showers with buckets of water back in her day. I also realize how much we take for granted the water we get regularly from our faucets. Especially since many people around the world still struggle with having clean, drinkable water like we do. Making decisions about school became a bit easier once I made the connection between water, engineering, and the many problems that still exist.

"This class is what led me to one question; how can I combine math with water? This was such a simple question, but it led me to a new love, certainty, and an undeniable conviction to learn more. The class discussed water issues that affect the world"

These issues and problems became potential solutions that I could help solve. That’s what engineers do – solve problems! Transferring was another step and goal toward building confidence and figuring out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I couldn't believe the progress. I was doing well in school and taking the right prerequisites, but I just didn't know it. I finally earned enough credits to transfer to Cal State Fullerton. Once there, it was my counselor who asked me if I’d formally consider pursing a degree in engineering. I often heard students talk about knowing what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives early on, but my journey was different. The first time I considered being an engineer was my third year in college. In high school, I made a simple generalization that was wrong. I thought that only really smart people went into engineering and sometimes I wondered if high school really mattered. I realize that high school was still a strong foundation that gave me confidence with numbers. Also, I would soon learn through experience what my parents and grandmother taught me, which is that work ethic will often surpass being smart.

I’d known that becoming an engineer major was tough and that Latinas were very rare in the field, but I decided to go for it. I was putting pieces together and realizing my own potential. My confidence would soon be tested as I began taking upper division classes as a formal engineer major. I quickly developed a love hate relationship with math. I was being challenged. I was taking classes that required much time and my full attention. I actually liked being challenged. I was no longer intimidated by something difficult. Sometimes I had to sit in the library for hours and hours at a time just to figure out something that I was missing. It was hard, but I gained confidence and pride once I understood what was in front of me. I had to keep developing new strategies as the classes became harder. Studying at the library was important because it motivated me to study as I observed everyone else studying. Also, epic movie soundtracks on YouTube kept me attentive while I studied. The sounds felt adventurous and the upbeat tempo kept me awake. Working at STEM² taught me about the importance of asking for help. I learned to approach my professors after class to ask questions.

"I realize that high school was still a strong foundation that gave me confidence with numbers. Also, I would soon learn through experience what my parents and grandmother taught me, which is that work ethic will often surpass being smart".

My drive was getting stronger and stronger as I conquered each course. I loved what I was studying. I was on my way to achieving something amazing that would help me solve real-world problems. It was yet another activity outside the classroom that helped me develop more clarity about my future. This time it was a competition that helped me continue to uncover my potential. I was part of the Society of Environmental Engineers; through them I was recruited to be a part of a team that was building water projects and competing with other universities. In my mind, this was a great opportunity for hands on experience. I liked the idea of putting into practice what we were learning in the classroom. I wasn't sure what I was getting into because I started with no experience, but things changed overtime.

The organization running the competition presented a problem pertaining to water issues with set parameters. Our job was to find the best solution to the problem. The first two years we built, competed, and did reasonably well against other teams. However, by the third competition there were a few changes. First, I was leading the team. And second, I wanted to change the dynamics of the team by adding more aspiring female engineers. I was the only female in our first two competitions. In addition, I focused on making another major adjustment. We sought out our professors as resources, which really enhanced our designs and approaches to the problem. The end result was first place! More importantly, I made another important connection that taught me something important about myself. I enjoyed leading. I enjoyed the process of working with other people for one collective goal. I had to study, know my stuff, and support the team so that we each did our part. I liked the challenge and responsibility. Winning the competition was validation for hard work inside and outside the classroom.

"My drive was getting stronger and stronger as I conquered each course. I loved what I was studying. I was on my way to achieving something amazing that would help me solve real-world problems".

I graduated with the support and encouragement of my entire family. They pushed me forward. It took me an additional two years, but the experiences and lessons learned were worth the time. Graduation was special. I worked so hard. I couldn't have done it without the support and guidance along the way. The long hours and study sessions paid off. I felt confident. I was no longer shy and I was looking forward to seeing where my career could take me. I became certain about my capabilities, potential and desire to lead. I think that I was unknowingly learning about leadership from my grandmother all along. Throughout the years she told me stories about her upbringing. She taught me the value of education, work ethic, and sacrifice. She had to be a strong leader. She had to sacrifice her own freedom as she raised five boys on her own. She has been a strong role model and my greatest guide. I think that I get my dance skills from her to. Her free spirit might have also influenced my desire to travel the world. I’ve been to many places, but Costa Rica has left a vast impression in me. Aside from amazing scenery, people, and delicious food, I loved their tradition of saying Pura Vida as they say goodbye to each other. Their words mean “pure life”, which is a beautiful expression that reminds me about wanting to live life passionately.

"I was no longer shy and I was looking forward to seeing where my career could take me. I became certain about my capabilities, potential and desire to lead. I think that I was unknowingly learning about leadership from my grandmother all along".

It fits the philosophy I’ve developed through the years. To me, it’s a reminder to appreciate opportunities life gives us. My education and hands on experience has prepared me to take on anything in my path. I enjoy what I do and I’m still learning something new every day. I’m enjoying my successes, but my drive aims for new experiences and growth, which makes life amazing. What's next for me? I want to travel the world, lead projects, and solve water issues! My determination, study strategies, and the long hours helped tremendously. It’s in incredible feeling knowing that the work I do can significantly contribute to the well-being of so many people. Along the way I will continue to pursue growth as an individual, as an engineer, and as a Latina who aims to make her culture and family proud.

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