Hispanic Heritage Month: Latina SWEsters, Part 1

Meet and learn more about four of the SWEsters in SWE’s Latino Affinity Group: Justina Sanchez, Ivelisse Del Valle Figueroa, Emma Hagel, and Lorna Holt.
Hispanic Heritage Month graphic

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, SWE will be highlighting Hispanic and Latina women engineers in a series of blog posts.

Meet and learn more about four of the SWEsters in the SWE Latinos Affinity Group: Justina Sanchez (Product Safety Engineer at TÜV SÜD America), Ivelisse Del Valle Figueroa (Principal Mechanical Engineer at Northrop Grumman), Emma Hagel (Civil Engineering Major and SWE President of the University of Detroit Mercy’s SWE Section), and Lorna Holt (Engineer at SoCalGas).


Justina Sanchez // Product Safety Engineer at TÜV SÜD America

photograph of Justina Sanchez working

How would you describe yourself?

My name is Justina Sanchez, I have been married to my husband Christopher for 10 years and we have an amazing 8 year old daughter named Lillyan. I am born and raised in San Diego Ca. My mom was born and raised in San Diego as well, however my dad was born in Mexico and he and his family moved here at a young age. He and my mom met in their teens and dated a while, they got married and had me. A few years in they separated and my dad moved to Ensenada Mexico. I would stay with him some weekends. I have so many memories of my time with him there. I remember the atmosphere and culture being so different than living in the USA with the other side of my family. I really enjoyed it have great memories of living there with my dad. In my early memories I remember walking to the panaderia with my dad and getting pan dulce for breakfast and homemade tortillas were a staple with every meal. I am sure this time in my life is where my love for Mexican candy started. Unfortunately my dad passed away when I was 6 so my time with him and there was short. I have family that lives down there so we still go and like to vacation down there. At one point my husband and I really considered buy property down there. It still may be a consideration for later in life because I love travel and try new foods and experience. I also love serving at church and just love laugh and have fun in any environment I’m in!

What’s your first memory of wanting to pursue engineering? 

Growing up I never thought of engineering as a career option. In fact it wasn’t until I started working at TÜV SÜD America that I realized what an amazing field engineering is! Everyday I’d watch the engineers work and thought they had an exciting job! They would do all kinds of interesting tests, some involved water or powders and even fire! I knew I wanted to get my hands on that kind of stuff, so after a brief but life changing conversation with my boss, he said I’d need a degree in Electrical Engineering in order to work in the lab. I literally googled electrical engineering schools in San Diego. After looking at a few schools I decided on ITT-Tech. I had coworkers who went there and had great things to say! Not knowing much about electrical engineering I took the risk and jumped right in. Thankfully I took a liking to it and was good at it! After I graduated I was given the opportunity to be a test technician where I was responsible for all the lab duties from testing and calibration and being involved in all the audits. After doing this for 5 years I was promoted to a Product Safety Engineer where I handled the full project from beginning to end.

What is your current position?

I am Product Safety Engineer at TÜV SÜD America Inc. and have been in this position for 4.5 years. 

What’s it like to be an engineer in your field?

As a Product Safety Engineer we test and certify products before they go to market to ensure they are safe for public use. We see a huge variety of products come through the lab. Things like casino gaming machines, spas, all kinds of household appliances, audio and video equipment and mobile tracking devices to name a few. It’s pretty awesome to see something you’ve tested out in the real world! I have been in this position the last 4.5 years and I still always learn new things. I really enjoy that aspect. 

What is a project or accomplishment you are most proud of?

Something that I am grateful to have had the opportunity to do, is Champion our Womens Network throughout North America. With 78 members from 15 different locations, we now have a core team of ladies leading this network. Our goal is to build relationships with the women between offices and divisions, and to rise up our companies future leaders by offering a number of trainings and opportunities to attend workshops or conferences as well as mentoring opportunities with C-Level Executives. There is so much potential for this network and I hope for it to become valuable for every woman involved as well as the company as a whole. 

What is your philosophy in life?

My philosophy in life is to Put God first and everything else will come together. I truly believe this. 

Tell us how you first got involved with SWE.

I first got involved in with SWE in June of 2018 when our company celebrated International Women in Engineering Day. Our marketing depart shared about SWE and who they were and what they do. I wasn’t familiar with them at the time, but I was definitely interested in learning more. I found the San Diego section and joined right away! 

What’s the best thing to happen since you became involved in SWE?

Definitely going to the SWE San Diego FY19 Open House where I sat next to a SWENexter and her mom. Her name is Madalyn Nguyen and she is part of her school’s robotics team – TEAM SPYDER 1622. Their teams motto is “Think Safety!” When they found out I was a Safety Engineer and I found out about their Think Safety motto, we knew we had to connect! This started a wonderful relationship where I became involved at a number of events and eventually became Madalyn’s mentor. She even got to intern at TÜV SÜD America this past summer. Meeting Madalyn and her mom Tracy has been so amazing! We enjoy collaborating at various SWE and STEM events throughout San Diego. 

What’s next for you in your work?

I’m working on getting my auditors authorization and stepping into a senior position. I do have my eyes on management in the future, but for today I am enjoying where I am at and learning and growing all the time. 

What would you tell someone who is thinking of becoming an engineer?

If you have a desire for engineering I would say to you “Give it a try!” It’s exciting, challenging and fun, with growing pains all at the same time! Ask a lot of questions and if you have the opportunity to get into the lab, do it!! ! Its great hands on experience. Engineering is definitely a fulfilling and rewarding career field!


Ivelisse Del Valle Figueroa // Principal Mechanical Engineer at Northrop Grumman

Hispanic Heritage Month: Latina SWEsters, Part 1

Ivelisse Del Valle Figueroa is a Principal Mechanical Engineer working as part of the Agile Hiring Team for Northrop Grumman Mission Systems. She is also the Professional Development Lead of the SWE Latinos Affinity Group.

Growing up, Ivelisse loved math and physics, for which her parents encouraged her to pursue a career in engineering. Ivelisse was born and raised in Puerto Rico, where having a child pursue engineering at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez is a source of pride and joy for parents. That same sense of pride pushed her to complete her Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering at UPRM in December 2006. She joined SWE during her second year at UPRM and held the roles of Secretary and President of the University of Puerto Rico Collegiate Section during years FY05 and FY06, respectively. She also joined the Collegiate Leadership Coaching Committee in 2005, of which she took a break from in 2008, and returned to the now Leadership Coaching Committee in 2018.

When Ivelisse graduated she decided to try something completely different, she enrolled in the Miss Puerto Rico Universe 2008 pageant. Participating in the pageant required Ivelisse to prioritize two things when selecting her first engineering job: the job had to be in Puerto Rico, and it had to provide her with the flexibility to prepare for the pageant. These requirements are what led her to work as Lecturer Professor at Universidad del Turabo (now Universidad Ana G. Mendez Recinto de Gurabo). The job of Lecturer Professor was a job she loved; it combined her passions of coaching, engineering, and public speaking.

Her professional journey has taken her through Raytheon, Honeywell Aerospace, and Knowles Corporation. At Knowles, she obtained two patents on Ingress protection for reducing particle infiltration into acoustic chamber of a MEMS microphone package. During these years, Ivelisse also worked on her Masters in Mechanical Engineering from Auburn University. Ivelisse first learned about Auburn during the 2006 SWE Region D Conference, held at Auburn University, and it became the top choice when looking for graduate school options.

Ivelisse joined Northrop Grumman in 2016 and since has worked on as mechanical lead on electronic packaging design and analysis for line replaceable units and test equipment, and currently in hiring and recruiting for NGMS. For Ivelisse, receiving parts, assembling them, and seeing ideas come to life is the best part of the job.

Outside of work, she devotes most of her time to the Society of Women Engineers, where she serves as a leadership coach, providing coaching and consulting to the leaders of 11 sections. She is also the immediate past Co-chair and current Professional Development Lead of the SWE Latinos Affinity Group, where she has led a team of over 200 members through initiatives to increase diversity and inclusion in the organization.

When you meet Ivelisse, you will quickly learn that she can talk all day about beauty pageants, flamenco, and genealogy. She loves to read and listen to audiobooks and lives in Illinois with her husband and three-year-old son. Ivelisse holds a Certificate in Applied Project Management from the University of California Irvine, is a licensed Professional Engineer (P. E.) in Illinois, and a certified Professional Scrum Master I (PSM I).


Emma Hagel // Civil Engineering Major

photograph of Emma Hagel

Who have been your strongest influences in life?

My mom has been the strongest influence in my life. She raised me as a working single parent, worked hard and gave up so much for my entire life just so I could have the opportunities that she didn’t get. I am proud to say that come May 2020, I will be the first person in my family to earn a college degree. Thanks mom! It was all because of you.

What’s your first memory of wanting to pursue engineering?

When I was a little kid, I remember always sitting in my car seat in awe at the freeway interchanges in in downtown Detroit. There is nowhere to build but upwards, so the ramps are stacked on top of each other like a cake. I always thought “wow, I want to build that!” Even as an adult, driving through one still feels like being on a carnival ride.

What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome to be where you are today?

I have overcome many obstacles to get where I am today, but the biggest by far has been poverty. I did my homework by flashlight in high school because my mom couldn’t afford to pay our electric bill and buy groceries. Since I attended a lower-income public high school, I thought that this was a universal experience until I got to college.

When your friends/family find out that you are an engineer, what do they say or ask?

My family is from Michigan, and since I am studying civil engineering they always ask when I am going to “Fix the damn roads!” I tell them I’ll do it whenever the state legislature manages to pass an infrastructure funding bill!

If you weren’t an engineer, what would you be doing instead, or what would your life be like?

Before I wanted to study engineering, I actually wanted to go to art school and become a comic book artist! In the future, my dream is to be able to put my civil engineering education to use by working on federal infrastructure policy in the U.S. legislature.

Tell us how you first got involved in SWE.

I joined University of Detroit Mercy’s SWE chapter my freshman year of college (go Titans!). I gained a community of other women engineers on campus, and together we did K-12 outreach, went to national and local conferences, and even hosted a women in engineering panel on campus!

What’s the best thing to happen since you became involved in SWE?

Because of SWE, I have made so many friendships with other engineers outside of my year, giving me a sense of community. SWE has also given me the opportunity to travel to conferences and meet women engineers from all over the world!

What would you tell someone who is thinking about becoming an engineer?

Excelling in math is important, but it’s not everything! A good engineer must also be able to be creative, write well, communicate effectively, and work with others as a team.

What’s next for you in your work?  What are you looking forward to?

Right now, I am finishing my senior year at University of Detroit Mercy and applying to graduate school. I am hoping to start a master’s degree in transportation engineering or public policy next fall!


Lorna Holt // Engineer I at SoCalGas

Hispanic Heritage Month: Latina SWEsters, Part 1

What made you decide to go into engineering, how did you first become interested in a STEM field?

As a child, I loved building things (especially with LEGOs), coding to develop simple games, and astronomy. My mother gave me a science book once when I was six and I loved reading it along with some medical encyclopedias that my parents brought with us when we moved from Panama. Also, one of my uncles was considered a science buff, so whenever I got to visit him I would ask him questions about what I read in the science book that my mother gave me. I used to be amazed at the possibilities of science. 

How did your Hispanic heritage play a role in your decision to go into STEM/ Engineering?

When I first came to the US from Central America, I hardly spoke English and initially that caused some trouble for me when I was in school because it was difficult to express myself when asked questions. My teachers didn’t realize that I was not a native English speaker.  When I was reading the science books though, I felt that I could think about exploring the universe with scientific knowledge and no language barriers could hold me back from imagining. 

Where did you study? Talk about your educational experiences in engineering. How did you get to where you are now?

I studied engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. I was interested in the synergy of engineering and the life sciences. Originally I wanted to have a career in nanotechnology, possibly building tiny machines to help processes in the human body. So I started out studying engineering physics while taking coursework in the biological sciences. I ended up switching my major to biological engineering as I started to find myself becoming interested in how energy could be developed from biological processes. 

By the time I graduated from college, I started working in the natural gas industry eventually doing work related to instrumentation, programming and information technology. I still had a passion to do work related to the synergy of biology and engineering. I would read about renewable energy and when I found out that the company where I worked was looking into developing renewable natural gas from what is called biomass, I wanted to be part of those projects.

What do you love most about your job?

Currently I am working on a project team where we are developing renewable biogas from sources such as from dairies and waste. I like that my career almost came full circle because I am working on projects that are in line with my passion to combine biology and engineering. While I work more on the engineering side of developing the facilities that create the renewable biogas, it still helps to know about what is called anaerobic digestion, which is how the biogas is created.

What are your hobbies/ What do you do in your free time?

I sing in a choir and have done some community theater. Currently I am practicing Shotokan karate. Something that I have always wanted to do is animation voiceover. I did some training for it several years ago. I figure that maybe the reason I have that interest is that I learned English in part by watching cartoons as a child.


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