Monica Saenz remembers the day she decided she was going to go to college.
Saenz, then 16 years old, was working at a Golden Corral restaurant in El Paso and was cleaning up after a family that just finished a meal there.
"I was sitting on the floor with a spoon scraping the spaghetti off the carpet," Saenz said. "I sat there and I said, 'There's no way I'm going to do that for the rest of my life.' That was my defining moment when I decided that I was definitely, no matter whether I had the money or not, going to college."
Saenz, now a commercial advisor for ExxonMobil, shared her story with several hundred middle school-aged Latinas and their mothers during Latina Day at The University of Texas-Pan American's Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) conference Wednesday, Sept. 28.
Latina Day was sponsored by ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Northrop Grumman and Verizon.
In her lunchtime speech, Saenz said she had no definite career plans when she was a teenager, but her parents pushed her to do well in school, particularly in math and science. She urged the girls to start making a path for themselves and encouraged them to think of careers related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) because those careers are in high demand.
"Every single one of you, we're going to need you," Saenz said. "We all need you to focus on your studies. You have to have a path, some intent of what you want to do ... What I want you to hear today ... is that math and science are equated to opportunities. Pick a direction and start planning now."
Throughout the daylong event, the girls and their mothers or other female relatives heard representatives of companies, government agencies and other organizations talk about how they pushed through obstacles and studied hard to achieve their goals and urged the young Latinas to stay focused on school and aim high.
Among those giving advice was Samantha Lozano, who graduated from UTPA in 2009 as the first female to earn a bachelor's in computer engineering from the University. Lozano now works as an engineer for ExxonMobil. Lozano, an Edinburg native, said she chose UT Pan American because it was the University her parents and sister attended and because it provided her many opportunities.
"There's a lot of opportunity here in the Valley," she said. "Don't think that because it's so close to home it's not going to get you anywhere. I know a lot of the people I graduated (from high school) with wanted to leave town, because it's a small town, it's completely different than living in Houston where I live. Just because you stay here for school does not mean you failed. Pan Am has a lot of great opportunities."
Lozano and fellow ExxonMobil employee Jessica Garcia also told the girls that it is crucial they work hard to become whatever it is they want to be.
"It's hard, it's tough, but when you do something, put in a lot of effort and don't be scared to be rejected," Garcia said. "If you fail at something, keep trying. This country is a country of opportunity and it's your job to go look for those opportunities."
Lozano and Garcia, a native of Houston, also said their mothers were huge influences in their decision to go to college and they urged the mothers in the room to encourage their daughters to continue their education beyond high school.
"I know it's really hard to let go of your daughters ... but if you guys are there to support and encourage your daughters, look at what they can accomplish," Lozano said.
The girls and their mothers also heard a performance from UTPA Mariachi Aztlan during lunch, followed by Saenz's keynote speech and encouraging words from UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen and U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (TX-15). State Rep. Veronica Gonzales (Dist. 41) moderated a panel discussion that included Saenz, Helen Soto-Knaggs, director of external affairs for Verizon; Laura Gump, H-E-B vice president of operations for the border region; and Theresa F. Barrera, vice president of supplier diversity for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
During the discussion, the women talked about the challenges they faced while pursuing their degrees and how their families supported them along the way. They also answered the girls' questions including what subjects they studied in school and how they were able to pay for college.
Several mothers and daughters said they found the women's stories inspiring.
"I think it's absolutely great for them to see women in such leadership roles; I know my daughter is very interested in science and engineering," said Bea Martinez, an eighth-grade algebra teacher at Lyford Middle School." I think these ladies did an awesome job letting them know what's ahead or what could be ahead. We can absolutely reach them now."
Her daughter, Marissa, a seventh grade student, said she enjoys studying the planets and wants to work for NASA in the control center.
Marissa also said she liked the fact that Lozano became the first woman to graduate from UTPA's computer engineering program.
"That's really cool," she said.
HESTEC continues Thursday with Robotics Day, when several hundred middle school students will compete in navigating Parrot AR. Drones, the first quadricopter that can be controlled by an iPad, iPod Touch or iPhone, through obstacle courses.
For more information, visit www.hestec.org.