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Hispanic Engineers Celebrate Latinas In Phoenix

Thousands of people recently attended the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers 43rd National Convention in downtown Phoenix. The five-day event featured five specialized conferences with dozens of workshops and sessions that highlighted the latest technology, education and career opportunities.

Where Are They Now?

One panel featured early-career Latina engineers who shared advice to a roomful of mostly college students. They work in aerospace, banking, food and transportation industries. And they can relate to college students anxious about entering the professional world.

“Sometimes I feel like I have to work twice as hard to show my value, to show I’m worthy, that I belong there,” Lizette Saenz said. “I feel like I have to give everything that I can, give my 100% all the time because I want to see more Latinas in my team, I want to see more in my industry that I’m working in and just in all of STEM all around.”

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The National Science Foundation (NSF) said in 2015,  Hispanic women made up 2% of working scientists and engineers. The NSF’s most recent report uses data from 2017 and presents the information differently. Rather than break down the numbers by specific gender and races, the data is presented with  all women grouped together and underrepresented minorities grouped together. Based on 2017 data, 15.1% of scientists and engineers were women while 20.4% were underrepresented minorities.

“I didn’t really know the statistics,” Laura Buritica said. “And so when I first learned about these statistics that I’m such a minority, that’s when the doubts started coming in and so just kind of forgetting about that and just focusing on yourself and really pushing. If that’s what you really want to do, don’t let anyone distract you from that passion.”

After more than five years on the job, Stephanie Serrano said she is searching for balance.

“I’m one of the few Latina engineers so they go to me for a lot of things,” she said. “ And I’m so passionate about the work that we do and getting more Latinas in the workplace, so sometimes it’s hard to say no but I think that’s one of the things that I’m currently working on.”

The theme for the conference on Latinas in STEM was "poderosa," which means powerful, and panelists were asked to explain what it means to them.

“Power doesn’t necessarily come from title at the beginning,” Elise Rivas said. “It definitely has to come from within, so how do you be powerful in the workplace at the beginning is really being an influencer, a connector, a problem solver, and anyone can do that at any point.”

Margot Valladon recently moved into management and oversees a team of eight employees. When asked for the best advice she’s received, Valladon said, “Age doesn’t matter. So, throughout your work experience you’re going to see that I’m young, I’m just starting so maybe I shouldn’t talk or maybe I should just not say anything and just listen. I think all of those are very important, you have to be respectful, but I think that one thing that really matters is believe in yourself, however old you are. You have great thoughts, you have great ideas and you should bring it to the table.”

The panelists encouraged students to ask questions, seek mentors and make time for family, friends and hobbies.

Latinas Honored

Syliva Acevedo received the Society of Hispanic Engineers Rubén Hinojosa STEM Champion Award.

Acevedo is a former NASA JPL rocket scientist, entrepreneur, and current CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA. Named after former Texas Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, the award recognizes leaders who have a proven legacy of passionately supporting Hispanics in STEM and are champions for STEM initiatives within the Hispanic community.

Dr. Ellen Ochoa was the inaugural recipient of an award demonstrating excellence by a Latina in the aerospace field. Ochoa is a veteran NASA astronaut and former director of the Johnson Space Center.

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.