The important role of mothers in helping pave a bright future for their daughters was in full bloom Sept. 27 at the third day - Latinas Day - of the fifth annual Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week at The University of Texas-Pan American.
Approximately 800 Rio Grande Valley GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) eighth grade students and their mothers or grandmothers were able to hear inspiring stories of success from some of the most accomplished Hispanic women in the United States from all sectors - government, corporations and educational institutions - during the daylong event designed to encourage and interest Latina students to pursue higher education and careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields in particular.
"Mothers are their children's first and most important teachers for life," she said, recalling her own mother, who only went to the eighth grade and yet encouraged her. "She had a dream for her three daughters. There was nothing that her daughters could not accomplish."
Cárdenas described Latinas Day as inspiring, from the will demonstrated by the mothers and daughters attendance there to the interest shown from corporate and government executives present and by the hard work put in by GEAR UP and others who plan the event.
She asked the students to imagine themselves doing things she and their mothers never dreamed of.
"If you do imagine yourself, you will get there. I promise you that all these people here and everyone at this University are willing to put up as much work, as much heart to get you there as you are willing to put forth. Together we will help you fulfill your dream," she said.
Providing the morning keynote address was Carmen Medina, the current deputy director for Intelligence at the CIA, where she has been employed since 1978. She is a member of the three-person executive team that leads the nation's preeminent group of all-source intelligence analysts.
Although the purpose of Latinas Day is to encourage students in the fields of science, engineering and technology, Medina said she does not have expertise in those fields admitting to the audience that she flunked a graduate school statistics course.
"But I understand the issues that this conference is trying to address because in many respects the story of my family is not unlike many of the stories here and of President Cardenas," she said before describing her years growing up in a family, that included her beloved grandmother, with close bonds and traditional values.
Although her father, reflecting his cultural values of that time, only encouraged her brother, not her, to go to college, she was able to attend when her successful involvement in high school debate landed her a tuition-paid scholarship. Subsequently while pursuing graduate studies at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., Medina landed her job at the CIA.
"It is a matter of national security. It is a competitive world out there. Countries such as China are graduating by volumes many more engineers than the United States is graduating," she said. Medina added that the United States cannot maintain its competitive edge in the world without full integration of people of Latin descent into society's economy.
"One in five new entries into the labor force has a Latin heritage in the U.S. today," she said. "We need to have diversity in our workforce. We need people from the Rio Grande Valley to come to Washington, D.C. to set it straight."
Medina said she wanted to leave the students and their mothers some advice from a list of 10 that she has maintained and has helped her over the years. Among them were being yourself, remaining optimistic, empowering the people who work for you, allowing yourself to show emotion, and being a lifelong learner.
"The only thing you really control yourself in life is how you present yourself to others," she concluded.
Melissa Chavez, a student at Oliveira Middle School in Brownsville, said she was enjoying Latinas Day with her mother Carmen.
"HESTEC really helps you know what you want to do with your life," Melissa said. "I will be here with her all the time," said her supportive mother, who indicated she attended all the meetings for GEAR UP parents to find ways to help her daughter achieve her goals.
According to the U.S. Department of Education there are 10 million Hispanic children in U.S. elementary and secondary schools, of those students one in 10 are expected to graduate from college. With that alarming statistic, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who participated in HESTEC's Latinas Day through a video message from Washington, D.C., wants to see more Hispanic students get a higher education degree, especially females, in the STEM fields.
"As you all know education is the key to a bright and opportunity-filled future," she said. "A successful future is in your hands and one of the greatest opportunities for success is in the field of science and mathematics, engineering and technology."
Spellings, the eighth U.S. Secretary of Education and the first mother of school-age children to serve in that position, told the audience of mothers and daughters that studies today show that girls and boys in elementary school are equally interested in the science and math subjects, but by high school females make up only a fraction of Advanced Placement physics and computer science classes. She said in college only 20 percent of engineering majors are women.
"Remember your future is in your hands; study hard; talk to teachers and counselors; take rigorous courses like algebra, trigonometry, and calculus; keep your grades up; and above all be confident that you will be successful," Spellings said.
Also appearing at Latinas Day for a second time was Speaker Magda N. Yrizarry, vice president of Workplace Culture, Diversity and Compliance for Verizon Communications, and the 2005 winner of the UTPA Latina Pioneer Award.
"For example you could be beautiful 'and' smart. You can be powerful 'and' gentle. You can be assertive 'and' a leader. Those that rise to the greatest titles of leadership don't do it because of title, they do it because they understand the 'power of and,'" she said.
She also shared her stories of growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. and being raised by a single mother who spoke only Spanish and worked in a factory to support her three children after Yrizarry's father passed away.
"My mother taught us to appreciate what we had and to dream for what might be, again that is the 'power of and,'" she said.
To motivate the students, Yrizarry asked the audience to chant along with her the following phrase: "Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best."
"I try to live that all the time ... You can be your best and let somebody else be their best. As a matter a fact you have the responsibility to be your best and help somebody be their best and that is what this and HESTEC is about," Yrizarry said.
Letty Gonzalez of Zapata and her daughter Stephanie, a student at Zapata Middle School, said Latinas Day was an educational experience for them.
"It was nice to hear the intelligent presenters speak to Latinas and it was nice to spend the time with my daughter and be able to listen to something she is interested in - a future in engineering," Letty said.
Stephanie said hearing the panelists and speakers encouraged her to go for a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering.
"Latinas Day has been pretty interesting. It's nice to hear that no matter who you are, you can succeed. This event gives me a chance to discuss my interests about college with my mom and with professionals," Stephanie said.
Latinas Day participants had the chance to attend panel sessions featuring executives, scientists, engineers and researchers, and hear about their career choices, college experiences and words of encouragement.
During a panel session held for a standing room only crowd of mothers and daughters in the International Room of the ITT Building, the themes of working hard, exploring places away from home and taking advantage of opportunities were recurring ones.
UTPA graduate from Mission Sonya Galan, a finance leadership development manager at Texas Instruments, moderated the session in which all six participants described their backgrounds, how they came to be in their current positions, their job responsibilities, the importance of having Latina women in the workplace and some advice for the eighth graders and their mothers.
Galan, who works in Dallas and went from a bachelor's degree in marketing to work in auditing and has a MBA in management from Amberton University, said if you get your degree you can do anything you want.
"I had the support I needed from my parents," she said about working at a place away from home.
Panelist Veronica Molina from Edinburg, who attended UTPA on a scholarship and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, works as a senior quality engineer at Raytheon in Dallas. She said the students today were lucky to have events like HESTEC and career fairs to learn about the opportunities and careers available to them. She advised the students to take advantage of them.
"As a high school student and even a freshman in college, I did not even know what an engineer does," she said. "You need to find out about companies and ask questions."
Born in Columbia, South America, Adrianna Wilhelm, senior master data analyst in the Business Intelligence Architecture Group for Tyson Foods, Inc., came to the United States with a tennis athletic/academic scholarship at the University of Arkansas where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in international business with an emphasis in business and economics. She went on to earn a master's in information systems there.
"Participation in activities in school is very important," she said. Her sport gave her confidence, discipline and the opportunity to explore and travel said Wilhelm, who was a professional tennis player for a number of years. She said while subjects like math and science are necessary, it is most important to prepare yourself as a leader.
"You need to learn time management and how to prioritize," said Wilhelm, who is also a new mother with a 16-week-old child. "You must be ready for any good opportunity that comes your way. Work hard and dream."
Edna Ruano's language fluency in Spanish helped transition her from an internal auditing position at Southwest Airlines to a public relations specialist and one of 12 official spokespersons for the company. The Dallas native is a graduate of Southern Methodist University (SMU) with a degree in business administration and a CPA.
Growing up in a largely Hispanic neighborhood in Dallas, she often rode with her dad on his city bus route as a driver past the SMU campus.
"That's where you are going to school," she said he told her as he passed it on his route. Ruano earned a full scholarship to attend SMU but said she never forgets where she came from.
U.S. Navy Lieutenant junior grade Lisseth Carmen Calvio came a long way to take advantage of the educational benefits, travel and experiences that military service has provided her. She fled with her mother at age four when civil war broke out in her native El Salvador and came to New Jersey as an immigrant and grew up and went to school in what she described as a ghetto.
"It doesn't matter where you came from, what does matter is where you are going," she said, calling her mother, who gained her GED and became a beautician after emigrating, her hero.
Calvio said she took honors classes and AP courses during high school while also participating in ROTC, and despite her parents' protests, she joined the Navy. Later she received a scholarship from the Navy - $32,000 a year - to attend George Washington University where she earned her undergraduate degree in psychology. She is currently working on her master's with another scholarship as well as a monthly salary from the Navy.
"College is an experience. You learn a lot about yourself and you interact with people from all over the country," she said.
She also credited the Navy with providing her the chance to travel to many countries and to do things like piloting a ship, flying a helicopter and taking a submarine for a dive. "I'm now able to help my parents," she said. "I promised them when I left that it was for the good of the family and it was. It was hard to leave home but it was worth it."
UTPA's own Dr. Karen Lozano, an associate professor in mechanical engineering, told the crowd that her initial interest in her field probably came from watching a "Star Trek" movie because she had never met a scientist as a child.
She said she visited several universities in her native Mexico but there were no girls in the engineering programs but her parents told her to study what she liked and made sacrifices for her to go to school.
After obtaining her bachelor's in mechanical engineering from Universidad de Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico, she was able to obtain a scholarship and got her master's and doctorate from Rice University in Houston, where she was only the fifth female in the history of Rice to obtain a Ph.D. in her field, all achieved while raising a small child.
"I am not a genius but I work very hard," she said.
Lozano, who was the first woman to be hired in the UTPA Engineering Department, said her ability to bring in significant amounts of money to the University in grants from entities such as the National Science Foundation, the Air Force and the Navy has given her power within her department despite being one of its only women.
"If you want to do something, you really can do it. I encourage you moms to trust them (your daughters) and motivate them to do something with their lives," she said.
Maria Landa who attended the panel session with her daughter Lizbeth, a student at Zapata Middle School, said it was very nice to learn how women can progress.
"I am very happy to know there is a lot of support for them to do this," she said. Lizbeth, who is interested in being a doctor, said it made her think about what college she'd want to attend.
"I learned I will have to go to college and work hard to achieve my goal," she said.
The session made Palmina Pruneda, who came with her daughter Vicky, a Mission K. White Middle School student, realize that today anybody can do whatever they want to do.
"In my time there weren't a lot of opportunities like this. I know that if my mother would have pushed me a bit more I would have done more myself. I finished high school but would have liked to have been a teacher or something else," she said.
Her daughter, who wants to be a computer science engineer, learned something about success.
"No matter where you come from you can succeed," she said.
One panel session featured Sulema Castro, a graduate from The University of Texas at Brownsville, who currently works as an education and outreach coordinator for the Amazonia Science Gallery, National Zoological Park; Frances Garcia, inspector general and congressional watchdog for the U.S. Government Accountability Office; Dianna F. Noble, director of the Environmental Affairs Division of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), who oversees TxDOT's environmental programs; Ivette A. Bassa, vice president for research and development for Kraft Foods Latin America based in Coral Gables, Fla.; and Dr. Ann Nalley, president of the American Chemical Society.
All panelists discussed with students their heritage and family life and how that helped them become who they are today.
Bassa, who was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, grew up in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and returned to her native land to finish high school and complete her undergraduate degree in industrial chemistry in 1981. She told students that her physics teacher encouraged her to pursue a degree in the sciences, and she did just that while attending the University of Massachusetts.
She has been with Kraft for 20 years and shared with the audience three things that have and continue to help her succeed - optimism, intuition, and flexibility.
"So far I think it has helped me be really successful and I hope for you it does the same thing," she said.
Noble, a Texas native, said math came very natural to her and when she discovered that her uncle was an engineer and he had the opportunity to travel the world because of his profession she realized that is what she wanted to do too. In addition, Noble said a high school teacher also encouraged her to pursue the field of engineering.
"That to me was a very important message because that is when I realized what I wanted to be. Everybody that I knew that was an engineer was a man and now I had a teacher telling me you can do that too, so from then on out while I was in high school I decided I wanted to be an engineer," she said.
Another panel session featured the U.S. Intelligence Community represented by members of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who spoke to participants about their experiences in the agency and what they look for in new recruits.
Dr. Lenora Peters-Gant, director of the Intelligence Community Centers of Academic Excellence program in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, talked about her life growing up in Florida with 12 siblings as well as how working for the government agency has allowed her to work abroad.
"Read newspapers, both U.S. and foreign, because you can learn a lot. Learn to work with people different from you and learn to respect them. Learn to work in teams and build good relationships because those relationships will make a difference," Peters-Gant said.
"All these items are designed by dedicated scientists and engineers," Riquelme said. "The U.S. Intelligence Community needs dedicated people who are going to help our nation survive."
A CIA operations officer identified only as Claudia, due to security concerns, spoke about her dreams of becoming a missionary. After beginning her first year of studying to become a doctor, she realized she was better at numbers and received a degree in accounting. She immediately began work with the CIA where she said she wanted to do something for her country.
"Believe in yourself and take advantage. Work really hard because hard work is recognized. You have to get a degree to succeed - any degree works," she said.
Brownsville Besteiro Middle School student Claudia A. Gonzalez said she enjoyed the panel and all the Latinas Day activities, and was inspired to think of going into a career in the STEM fields.
"This gives me an idea of what I could possibly do in the future. Who knows I might get a career in the CIA," Gonzalez said.
Edna Duran, a student at Ida Diaz Junior High in Hidalgo, said attending Latinas Day helped her get a new perspective on her goals for the future.
"HESTEC is a good place to start planning for the future. I want to be a pediatrician one day," Edna said. "It's nice that I can be here with my mom because it involves her with what is going on in my life."
Her mother, Maria Esther, said she was grateful to UTPA and HESTEC for the chance to participate in events such as Latinas Day with her daughter.
"It's a grand opportunity to be able to share and enjoy the experience of HESTEC with my daughter and to be able to learn new things about her future," Maria Esther said.