HESTEC's Latina Day inspires future female STEM leaders
Posted: 10/09/2013
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UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen described Latina Day as special.

"There are very special days -- there are birthdays, there's Christmas -- but for me, personally, this day is the most moving day, to see mothers and daughters here at our University, to see mothers helping their daughters to become the next leaders of America ... and take us to the next level," he said.

UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen, pictured center, celebrates with mothers and daughters at the University's HESTEC Latina Day Oct. 9. Almost 400 high school girls and their mothers or other female mentors came to campus to hear successful Latinas share their stories and receive encouragement about achieving their goals.

Nelsen called the support important for their daughters as they pursued higher education and entered STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or other fields.

"So, to the mothers who are here today, we need you to help us, we need you to support us, we need you to support your daughters. As you are here today, please celebrate what you are accomplishing and what it means," he said. "Today we celebrate you."

Latina Day, which brought nearly 400 Region One GEAR UP ninth grade students and their mothers or other mentors to campus Oct. 9, is dedicated to celebrating and promoting women in STEM. The mother/daughter teams heard inspiring stories from prominent, successful women, many of them Latinas and/or UTPA alumnae, in careers once exclusive to men. Latina Day's main sponsor is ExxonMobil; its contributing sponsors include IBM, Northrop Grumman and Xerox.

Before departing to breakout sessions across campus, guests heard from Alma Ortega-Johnson, area president, South Texas Region, Wells Fargo, who touted her bank being named the No. 1 bank for Latinas by the national publication Latina Magazine as well as Wells Fargo's support of education.

She told her story of growing up poor in Mexico, one of five children of parents who only had elementary school educations. She said she told her father early in life that she wanted to be an attorney.

"To be honest with you, I didn't have a clue what an attorney was," she said. "What I really meant is that I wanted to have a college degree, because it was clear to me that was the only way for me to improve the quality of life."

Raymondville freshmen Claryssa Ledesma,Jodee Medina and Ashley Castro, pictured clockwise from top left to right, work with Georgina Maldonado, pictured bottom left, on creating a device to protect an egg during a breakout session at HESTEC's Latina Day Oct. 9

She said her mother helped her financially with the "allowance" money given to her mother by her father, who did not want his daughter to obtain higher education. While in college, she worked in a Mexican bank at a minimum wage job under supervisors who did not readily support employees who were also going to school full time. She said the bank eventually demoted her to its lowest position because she remained in school.

"I didn't mind cleaning the bank. It was an honorable job and I wanted to finish school. All that was important for me was to graduate from college," said Ortega-Johnson, who went on after graduation to fill leadership positions with Wells Fargo. "I am so happy to see so many Latinas advancing in Wells Fargo because we can definitely bring diverse backgrounds, different cultures and language. We (Latinas) can make any company to be so successful."

She asked the mothers to grab their daughters by the hand and tell each other, "We are going to take advantage of this together. Give each other a really tight hug, hug them because your daughters really need your support...the next time will be the hug of accomplishment at your graduation."

The high school girls and their mothers joined forces to build an egg pod during "Can An Egg Fly," sponsored by Raytheon Corporation, one of the numerous breakout sessions presented during Latina Day.

Ninfa Montalvo said the workshop that required them to design a protective device for an egg was a great inspiration for her 14-year-old daughter.

"I want her to be challenged and I want her to have access to all these things because this is how they learn and this is how they learn to succeed in life," said Montalvo. "Kids need an education to get ahead. By being exposed to all this, it gives them an incentive to really want to go to college."

Sandra Bernal, pictured left, and her daughter Salma Bernal, a freshman at La Villa High School, spend some quality time together at HESTEC Latina Day Oct. 9.

Teams were asked to build a shielding gadget for the egg in less than 20 minutes using materials like Popsicle sticks, Styrofoam cups, cotton balls and tissue.

The four-member groups were also on a tight budget. Each product they used to build their design cost between 25 cents and $1.

Students then climbed to the second floor of the Engineering Building and dropped their creations off the staircase to evaluate the durability of the design. Some eggs survived, others cracked.

Raymondville High School ninth grader Daniela Montalvo and her team won the challenge with a $2.75 design made out of balloons, string and a Dixie cup. She said the day's experiences helped her realize that as a young Latina, there are a lot of unique prospects ahead.

"It's a wonderful experience for us. We get to try new things," Montalvo said. "There are a lot of opportunities for us as young Hispanics. There is so much we can try and it is good because our moms get involved in our education."

The egg challenge was led by two Rio Grande Valley natives, Justa TreviƱo, a systems engineer, and Felicia Castillo, a mechanical engineer and 2008 graduate of UTPA.

"There are so many people in the Valley who don't understand that the world is bigger than just the Valley. That mindset that you have to stay here isn't the mindset we want to teach our girls," Castillo said. "We want to teach them to dream big. As females we have so much to contribute to the world."

Samantha Silvas (BS '09), site lead of the Central Infrastructure Houston Data Center for ExxonMobil Corp., and Pilar Montoya, chief executive officer of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, reinforced the day's overall message of empowerment by sharing their success stories and encouraging the girls to pursue their dreams.

Montoya, who emigrated from South America as a child with her mother, warned the girls and their mothers about the "F" word: fear.

"This is an "F" word I want you to remove from your vocabulary," Montoya said. "Fear is an ugly word....When you let fear get in your way, you stop yourself from taking that step toward creating that life that you want, you stop yourself from taking a chance and a risk to really be the woman you deserve to be."

Instead of succumbing to fear, Montoya said, replace that fear with another "F" word: faith.

"When we walk in faith, somehow we find the courage, somehow we're capable of stopping that little voice in our head that says that we can't do it," she said.

HESTEC continues Thursday, Oct. 10, with Robotics Day, when hundreds of middle and high school students will test their Lego Mindstorms EV3 robots they built and programmed in a sumo-style competition at the UTPA Fieldhouse.

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