Elcira Bermudez had simple dreams growing up. The University of Texas-Pan American alumna wanted to be a United States citizen.
"When we came to America, we came here illegally and we were always afraid to be deported at any time," Bermudez said.
Her destiny would surpass her wildest expectations. The young girl did not realize then she would become a pioneer for female Hispanics.
Bermudez rose through the engineering ranks and is now a driving force behind Raytheon Company, a major defense government contractor for the armed forces and a global leader in defense and homeland security. She works on the contractor's multi-spectral targeting systems as the operations lead.
Bermudez's voyage began in Guatemala where she and her five siblings were born. When she was 10 years old her family made a terrifying journey into the United States and eventually settled in Edinburg in search of a better life. Times were tough and money was scarce, but Bermudez said her mother labored tirelessly in restaurants to support them.
"My mother worked extremely hard to give all her six children what we needed and she taught me the most valuable lesson which is my work ethic," Bermudez said. "Arriving from an extremely poor country, opportunities and success in America only come to those who work hard and don't give up."
Bermudez took that lesson to heart. Though she knew no English, Bermudez quickly picked up the language and excelled in her classes. In junior high, while she was in the process of obtaining permanent legal residency status, she was selected for a unique program at UTPA, the Educational Talent Search (ETS), a federally funded outreach program for early intervention.
"I owe a lot of my education success to ETS," Bermudez said.
In high school, Bermudez discovered her enthusiasm for mathematics in a pre-calculus class at Edinburg North High School.
"It was with Mr. Jesus Mata. It was his passion for math and the format he used to teach in classes that sparked my interest initially in the engineering field. I remember him always telling me that I should go into engineering," she said.
After high school, Bermudez's illegal immigrant status came full circle. Her family received a letter from the U.S. Immigration Department that would decide their fate. They were summoned to court.
"Thank God we were officially welcomed to America by the judge and I will never forget the words she told us. She said the doors of opportunity are wide open and it is up to you to go get those dreams," Bermudez said. "Since then, I don't just dream, I dream big."
That is when Bermudez followed her high school teacher's advice and enrolled at UTPA.
"UTPA offers one of the top engineering programs and the staff made sure we were not only book smart, but provided real life scenarios for the students to be involved in," Bermudez said.
Even so, school was a struggle. Classes were complex and Bermudez said her family could not even afford a home computer so she spent hours poring over her books on campus.
"It was very difficult for my mother to understand why I spent several hours studying. I practically lived at the University to complete all my engineering projects," Bermudez said. "It was a huge sacrifice, but I would do it all over again."
Her dedication paid off. Bermudez graduated in 2004 with a Bachelor of Science in Manufacturing Engineering degree. She also managed to squeeze in a little romance. Bermudez met her husband at UTPA when they were both freshmen.
"We didn't really start dating until he was a senior. We were both fully focused on our school and career. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in electrical engineering," she said.
Bermudez later earned her master's degree in engineering at Southern Methodist University. The 31-year-old now lives with her husband in McKinney, Texas and is a manufacturing engineer for Raytheon's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. She has been with the company for six years.
It was not easy to break into the male-dominated field, but Bermudez said Raytheon was the perfect fit.
"Being a female Hispanic engineer seemed to be a major challenge, but luckily for me, Raytheon Company is a leader in diversity initiatives. My team members value my opinions and business decisions and I always feel included," Bermudez said.
Bermudez said she is also honored to be included as one of UTPA's Pillars of Success. The University recognized the new handful of inductees Feb. 17 during its Alumni Ball.
"I am very humbled to receive this award. This award gives me more visibility and I hope to continue to reach out in the community to make a greater impact with Hispanic education," Bermudez said.
She is already an avid volunteer in her community serving as a mentor for youth and new employees. Bermudez works diligently to deliver the Raytheon MathMovesU program to students as a means to motivate them to seek math, science, and engineering degrees. She has received a number of awards and recognitions including Raytheon's 2011 Women to Watch Award.
Bermudez credits two things for her success: perseverance and ambition.
"One must not give up in the face of difficult moments or become despondent, but always have the drive or 'ganas' to succeed," she said.