This article was originally written for, now a part of

As I sit in on family dinners discussing my current goals and future plans, I realize the difference I am making for my family. I have aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and family friends, all of whom mention that they are proud of my current efforts in becoming an engineer. They are proud not only that I am a female in the family receiving a college degree, but that I’m taking the challenge to become one of the few Hispanic female engineers out there. When I am away from home struggling with my studies and feeling like I will not be able to complete the task in hand, I sit back, compose myself and realize that I’m working not just for me, but also for my family, for other females, for other Hispanics and for beating the odds.

The Source of My Motivation

My inspiration, motivation and strength come from my father. Without him, I would not be able to understand the value of a great work ethic. Eagerly wanting to leave the civil war in El Salvador, my parents came to the United States at a young age, seeking a better place to raise my brother, who was barely a year old at the time. To this day, my father has not stopped working hard and sacrificing his time and efforts to keep our family united, healthy and happy. My father is the core of my family. He is our stability and our foundation. His sacrifices are what ignite the flame in my dedication to continue to pursue my degree and career.

In addition to my father’s efforts, I am motivated to succeed against statistics, cultural stereotypes and negative views of Hispanics and females. I do not need to achieve the American Dream to reach my happiness; I simply want to be a well-respected citizen and employee, living based on my efforts and doing what I love.

Beating the Biggest Struggle: Lack of Exposure

As many would say, being a first-generation student has its struggles. I personally believe that the biggest struggle is ignorance and lack of exposure. These students come home to parents who may not be familiar with the educational system, and so the student is left to learn on his or her own. Not knowing about possibilities and opportunities creates a struggle in deciding what to do after graduating from high school.

I was fortunate enough to be in a school district that had academies at every one of the high schools nearby. Each academy had its own focus: law, business, biomedical and engineering. When I left middle school, I received a recommendation to attend the engineering academy (METSA) based on my math and science Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) scores, and without knowing what I really wanted to do after high school I went with the recommendation. I had a passion for math, and technology and engineering were definitely realms that I had considered in the past. Once I attended the engineering academy, I had more exposure to numerous engineering fields.

Pursuing My Passion

I realized by the end of my freshman year in high school that I wanted to do civil engineering. Structures and bridges fascinate me, and the combination of heavy math and project planning made civil engineering the suitable career for me. The METSA academy not only provided exposure to engineering; it prepared me in many ways for what was yet to come after high school. My academy director, Mansoureh Tehrani, stood by my side from day one, guiding me and helping me reach my goal of attending a prestigious four-year institution. Mansoureh knew, just like me, that exposure was key in students recognizing their passions. That is why I completed every project and assignment, went on all field trips, attended professional workshops, attended leaderships camps and conferences and networked with educators and professionals to eliminate some of my ignorance. I truly feel that without these opportunities and guidance, I would have not been able to find myself where I am today.

After graduating from Southern Methodist University (SMU) with my bachelor’s degree, I hope to continue my education by pursuing my master’s degree through the university’s 4+1 program, in which it would only take me one additional year to complete my master’s degree or simply begin working for a structural engineering firm or construction management company. I want to be able to receive my Professional Engineer (P.E.) license and possibly become Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (L.E.E.D.) certified. I also hope to return to the METSA academy to share my personal achievements and offer advice. I would like to be a leader in the community and become actively involved in helping younger students achieve a higher education.

Advice From a First-generation Student

As a first-generation student, I would like to share the following advice:

Gain Exposure

Like I mentioned earlier, I find exposure to be very important. First-hand experiences help build up our intellectual and social minds. If you learn about different career opportunities prior to attending college, it will help you decide which college to attend. It can also help you avoid wasting time and money switching back and forth between majors until you find one that “fits.”

Apply, Apply, Apply!

Most schools are looking for students who are eager to learn and build their personal knowledge. The same applies to scholarships: the money is out there, and people are looking to invest in students who sincerely want to learn and continue in higher education. It does not hurt to dedicate time to apply, apply, apply! By having most of your education paid for through scholarships, you can enjoy learning with much less stress. Consider that the following factors are often used to determine not only acceptance into colleges and universities, but also which students receive scholarships: active involvement as a leader in high school or the community, SAT/ACT scores, GPA, class rank and community service.

Tackle Your To-do List Early

Another major piece of advice is to apply for everything early and complete the items of the “apply for college” to-do list with plenty of time to spare. A to-do list could include the following tasks: take SAT/ACT tests early, visit prospective college campuses, finalize a list of college prospects, review college application guidelines and requirements, decide if you would like to apply for “early admission” or “early decision” (there is a major difference), apply for scholarships early and fill ou FAFSA forms as soon as you can.