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Becoming a Latina Engineer at NASA - Zaida Hernandez

In high school, I followed my interests! I loved computer modeling and I was good at math, which led to taking all of the engineering graphics courses offered by my school. I learned to use AutoCAD - a drafting software used by many engineers. Exposure to AutoCAD was important to understanding how engineers design and take ideas from concept to reality. What really solidified my interest in engineering was an internship opportunity I was part of as a high school senior. Such hands-on opportunities gave me new ideas that went beyond the classroom. These ideas turned into interests, which I saw as opportunities. I was part of the co-op program at my school and was a member of Business Professionals of America (BPA). Also, I interned with NASA part time in the afternoons for a year. My experiences at these internships changed my life forever.

My academic and career path was not always clear. Because I was interested in graphics, I enrolled in engineering and architectural graphics courses at school. Originally, I considered architecture but I also went to an all-girls engineering camp to learn about what engineering was about and the different types of engineering. That led me to focus on engineering instead, which looking back, was very important to my path. I realized that I liked making and creating! For this reason, I declared my major in engineering as I began to explore life after high school. I graduated in the top 10% of my class and I was very proud of that achievement, but it was not easy. I spent many hours preparing and figuring out the best approach. To help me study for the SAT and improve my score, I bought a SAT practice book. The goal was to practice and get used to the timed portions of the test. This helped me improve my score the second time around.

Although I was an honor student in high school, I had a very hard transition to university level. I was having a hard time balancing my internship, school work, organization and personal events. I struggled in a few classes. I even dropped a class, didn't do great in others, and was put on academic probation. I was at risk of losing my academic merit scholarships, which was very stressful. I went from feeling confident and accomplished in high school, to feeling confused and lost in college. I had to think through how I would continue to pursue my goals, despite the hard times. The turning point came for me when I decided to get my life together, set priorities, focus on myself and get through my obstacles. With a lot of dedication, some nights of little sleep, and a lot of support from family, friends, and lots of tutoring, I was able to get my grades back up and graduate with honors so that was my biggest victory. This was a slow process, but I had to remind myself that I was not going to allow anyone or anything stand in the way of my goals and dreams.

It took me a while to decide to go to office hours, but once I started going each visit was very useful because teacher assistants clarified homework questions or any doubts from lectures. I started going to office hours when there was a concept I did not understand in class. I also found free tutoring on campus which was another great resource. Finally, I would say that organization also really helped. Having a visible calendar where I could write down deadlines, exam dates, and other important information helped me plan for enough study time. These strategies really helped my progress. I was no longer feeling lost; I just had to be patient. At the end of the day, I took advantage of resources available to me. Some of those tough classes required much dedication, practice, and asking for help. I worked on homework problems and then if there was more time, I practiced additional problems to make sure I was fully grasping concepts. Practice led to confidence!

My dedication led to a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's in industrial engineering. While completing these programs I tried to take as many space electives as possible and some of my classes were Rocket Propulsion, Space Vehicle Design, and System Safety (which was taught by a retired astronaut). Engineering is a versatile field with limitless opportunities, especially with technology advancing so quickly. Also, a career in STEM improves society and everyday life for so many people everywhere. For example, mechanical engineering can lead to related industries such as aerospace, oil/gas, automotive, construction industries, aviation, and so many more. There is always a need for engineers because they work across so many fields. The journey is exciting, rewarding and worth pursuing. I am proud of myself and my family is also very proud.

My family was 100% impactful in my academic journey. They were very supportive of me the entire time. Especially when I was mentally exhausted and getting ready to give up on my dream of becoming an engineer, they kept believing in me. They always provided me with words of encouragement and love! I would like to encourage all students, but primarily first-generation Latino/a college students to pursue their dreams. Figuring out how to balance work, school, and personal life will not be easy, but worth trying! There are many of us who went through the struggle and we are here to provide support. Don't be afraid to reach out to other Latinos in person or even through social media. There is a great deal of advice and support that we can provide along the way. Navigating financial aid, scholarships, internships, and challenging classes is all very doable. Reach out, find those who will support and inspire you, and we’ll do it together!


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