Daughters and mothers urged to overcome obstacles during HESTEC Latina Day
By Office of University Relations
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Posted: 09/29/2010
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Gemma Garza is not only determined to pursue a career as an X-ray technician for herself, she's doing it to provide a better life for her unborn daughter.

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Texas State Rep. Veronica Gonzales, TX-41, gave the luncheon keynote address during UTPA's HESTEC 2010 Latina Day Sept. 29.

Garza, a 17-year-old senior at San Benito High School, was one of about 1,000 girls who attended The University of Texas-Pan American's HESTEC Latina Day Sept. 29.

In its ninth year, the Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology Week's Latina Day brings the students and their female relatives to campus to hear from professionals in various industries, from petroleum engineering to finance. Throughout the day, the girls and their families heard inspiring stories from women who overcame many obstacles such as poverty and discrimination to become leaders in their careers.

Garza said she enjoyed having the opportunity to spend the day with her mother, Dulce Guzman, and grandmother, San Juana Ultreras, who have supported her decision to continue her education.

"They didn't attend college so, they're like, 'Go, go to college,'" she said. "Having them with me makes me want to continue."

Garza said she felt inspired by the women who spoke at the event.

"If they can make it — they had their life harder and I have it easier, I can make it too," she said.

The event, sponsored by ExxonMobil and Northrop Grumman, included keynote addresses from State Rep. Veronica Gonzales, TX-41, and Edna Campos Gravenhorst, author and historical researcher, as well as inspirational speeches from representatives of the two sponsor companies and Shell Oil.

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Monica Saenz, senior engineer for ExxonMobil, speaks to female high school students and their relatives during HESTEC 2010 Latina Day Sept. 29.

The teenagers and their relatives also attended sessions where they listened to women from different industries talk about how they pursued their careers and participated in hands-on activities. The speakers also gave advice on how to look for scholarships and other financial aid and other tips on preparing for college.

Gonzales shared her life story in family pictures and words to the high school students and their mothers as the keynote luncheon speaker during Latina Day.

A successful lawyer with the law firm of Kittleman, Thomas & Gonzales, L.L.P., Gonzales is the first female elected to represent her district, which she has served since 2004. In her first of now three terms, she was named Legislator of the Year by the Mexican American Legal Caucus and passed the highest percentage of bills by any Democrat legislator in the House.

A well-known advocate for abused women, healthcare for the underserved, police officers, business owners and students, she has won numerous honors including the recent "Ultimate Latina" Award from the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Patient Advocate Award from the Texas Academy of Family Physicians and the Legislative Champion Award from Community Health Centers.

Gonzales said her life, like their own, has had its ups and downs. She faced the tragic death of her mother in an auto accident at age 14 and had to plan the funeral herself as her father, who was also seriously injured, recovered.

"My mother was beautiful, smart and loving but tough as nails. If I brought home a B, it better be an A; if I brought home an A, it better be an A+," she said. "I've always pushed myself because I wanted to make my mother proud."

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Author and historical researcher Edna Campos Gravenhorst delivered the morning keynote address during HESTEC 2010 Latina Day at UTPA Sept. 29.

A year and a half later, her maternal grandmother died and on her first day of college as a first generation student at Southwest Texas (now Texas State) her paternal grandmother died.

"I had lost the three most important women in my life," she said. "But it is weathering the storms that make you stronger."

Support from her teachers, close friends and remaining family, involvement in a variety of school activities and dedication to her studies led to a successful college career with a degree in English and her first job at a law firm where a female lawyer there became an important mentor who encouraged her to go to law school. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin Law School. Nineteen years ago she joined her current law firm in the Rio Grande Valley and in 2004 was approached to run for state representative and won with 70 percent of the vote.

"I can assure you that when I was your age if you would have said to me that I'd be making laws someday, I would have told you that you were crazy. But now I know with a strong education, a strong belief in yourself, the ganas or desire to succeed, there's very little that can't be achieved, especially when there are others believing in you," Gonzales said.

She told the students that the future was up to them and offered some advice to contemplate as they moved forward. She encouraged them to set a proper path for themselves by identifying their talents, having confidence and finding a mentor and replicating the qualities they most admire in them.

A risk taker herself, she asked them to not be afraid to take chances or to ask questions when they needed help. She also recommended to never pass up taking advantage of educational opportunities, particularly with the financial support available to students today.

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Billieann Martinez, a senior at San Benito High School, and her mother Billie Martinez, enjoy lunch as they listen to various speakers during HESTEC 2010 Latina Day Sept. 29.

"Remember, we never stop learning. Education is knowledge and knowledge is power. It is something that can never be taken from you," she said.

Expressing gratitude and remembering where you come is important, she said, as well as paying it forward once you are successful.

"You can be a mentor, you can give time or money to causes you believe in, you can help take care of a parent or grandparent," she said.

A strong advocate for women's rights and empowerment, Gonzales ended her message with a look at the legacy of change for women and the opportunities for them in the future.

"It wasn't that long ago that women couldn't vote — now many of us hold office. It wasn't that long ago that colleges were dominated by men — now more women are going to college than men. It wasn't that long ago that women couldn't have a career outside the home, today, women work in every field — they are CEOs, sit on boards of large corporations, they are astronauts, engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, governors, Secretary of State and perhaps one day, president of the United States," she said. "You are our future and from my view up here and looking out at you — the future looks awfully bright."

In her morning keynote address, Gravenhorst told the group they must overcome cultural obstacles of fear, guilt and shame to succeed.

Gravenhorst said she wrote the book, "Ay Mija, Why do you Want to be an Engineer?," after she was asked to speak at the St. Louis Science Center in St. Louis, Mo. While doing research in 2006 she learned that less than 1 percent of about 3.5 million working engineers in the United States were Latina. She interviewed and wrote about 12 Latina engineers throughout the country, including UTPA's Professor of Mechanical Engineering Karen Lozano, about how and why they entered the profession.

"The 12 engineers shed their fear of the unknown, the guilt of leaving their families and the shame of where they came from," Gravenhorst said. "We can improve our future by making better choices."

Omolayo Badru, an electrical engineer for Shell Oil, encouraged the young women to consider careers in science, technology and math because they build confidence and offer unique opportunities. She added her employer strives to create a diverse workforce, but that more women are needed to fill jobs that will soon be vacated by Baby Boomers readying to retire.

"You bring a uniqueness, you bring something amazing: your background, your culture, the way you were raised," Badru said. "Your experiences bring a special flavor to the taste and the environment within Shell, and we need that opportunity to deliver our commitment to the industry in a responsible way."

Echoing Badru, Monica Saenz, senior engineer for ExxonMobil, told the audience about the dire need for professionals in STEM-related fields, especially women, because of the shortage. She also talked about ExxonMobil's and UTPA's efforts to close the gap in math and science achievement in American students.

"For years now math and science education in the United States have been lagging behind that of other countries and this decline is accompanied by a serious shortfall of girls and young women interested in pursuing careers in science technology engineering and math," Saenz said. "American kids, especially our American girls, aren't getting the knowledge, inspiration and encouragement needed to see math and science as courses that need to be seriously considered and hopefully mastered. Students in today's classrooms will be tomorrow's workforce, and American businesses need highly skilled, knowledgeable women and men to solve society's challenges."

Marlen Ramirez, engineering project manager for Northrop Grumman and a UTPA graduate, told the group about the importance of having support from one's family while fulfilling a dream. Ramirez said it was the support of her family that helped her and her four sisters to all earn bachelor's degrees and for her and one of her sisters to earn master's degrees.

"Don't let any obstacle stand in your way," Ramirez said.

HESTEC continues Thursday, Sept. 30 with Robotics Day, which will feature a competition among high school students. Raytheon and Time Warner Cable are sponsoring the event.