“How I Went From a Single Mom to an Engineer: Living the American Dream” was written by SWE member Melody Gonzalez.
Reflections of a not-so recent graduate:
For you to understand my point of view, you will need to know what the comic books call, my origin story. I come from the small Venezuelan town of Rio Caribe, which I fondly remember as a beautiful, vibrant community. However, over the years, poor management has led to a variety of infrastructure breakdowns, including a less than efficient water system infrastructure. I remember as a little girl my grandmother filling containers of water every day when the water started to flow in the morning just so we could have water to shower and cook during the day.
At the time, I wasn’t aware who was responsible for that and I didn’t know anything about water treatment nor environmental engineering. Fast forward a few years and I graduated from high school and made the decision to study petroleum engineering – completely unaware of what the future had prepared for me and how that life experience would shape my professional life.
Subsequently, I came to United States full of hope with a new husband, and in quick succession, we had two wonderful boys. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t work out and I found myself in the U.S. with no family, no career, not knowing the language, and $300 in my pocket. Those first few years were very difficult. However, my story is not intended to seek sympathy, but rather share with you what I went through as an immigrant mother to survive on my own, and how even through adversity, you can prevail.
In a few words, being an immigrant is like having two hearts inside your chest. It feels like you don’t belong anywhere: you don’t seem to fit where you are, and you yearn for the land where you come from. You don’t want to go back, but you miss your country. You miss your friends, your family, your past life. In the end, you must overcome the feeling of loss and mourning of your past life to be able to embrace your new life and turn the page toward your future.
I was feeling all these things for so long, but then one day I woke up and realized that I wasn’t satisfied with how my life was turning out. I was a single mother of two children, recently divorced, barely spoke English, and didn’t have any professional degree here in United States. “Things have to change!” I thought to myself.
“Things have to change!” I thought to myself.
That same day I decided that I would be the only person in charge of my success and happiness, and I wasn’t going to wait for anyone or anything to miraculously fix everything for me. Since then, my mindset shifted to a go-getter, war-fighting kind of woman. I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever, but for some reason after my kids were born, I thought my professional life was over. Maybe it was because that is what society expects from you as a woman, maybe I thought my fighting days were behind me. The pressure to be a full-time star mom is enormous, especially when your kids are very young, but certainly I wanted to be that star mom nonetheless. I knew I needed to make some life adjustments, not just for my children, but for myself, my own well-being, my self-esteem, and my pride.
One of the most important realizations I made was that even though I felt alone, I didn’t have to make these adjustments by myself. Thankfully, I found amazing people on my journey that showed me that a better future was not just a dream, but a pursuable goal. One of those individuals was my first English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher, Analbert Lopez. Meeting her was the pivot point of my life. She would be the one to introduce me to a path that later became the better life I was looking for me and my family. Later, my Miami Dade College (MDC) teacher, Ana Maria Guadayol, took the time to mentor me and guide me through this path. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for her advice. And finally, my academic advisor at Florida International University (FIU), JoAnna Sanabria, was my biggest cheerleader and the guiding light in front of me during my student’s years.
I was also inspired to achieve more for myself by my grandmother. She explained to me when I was a little girl that she couldn’t go to school because “at that time” girls didn’t go to school. Her father sent his boys to school, but all the girls needed to stay home and learn how to do household chores. Nevertheless, the fact that she was not allowed to go to school didn’t stop her from learning. So, when her brothers came home from school, she took their books and taught herself how to read, write and do math. Her biggest advice to me always was to take advantage of the opportunity I had to go to school because she hadn’t had that opportunity. That advice has always been my motto in my professional life and the reason I always try to take advantage of any opportunities that come my way, because I know many women before me didn’t have them. Even today, many women do not have the same opportunities that men have so it is for these women that I now speak and tell my story. Things have changed, and they continue to change for the better, but the fight is far from over, and we still have a lot of progress to make.
I owe everything to these incredible women who became my role models. They believed in me, even when sometimes I did not believe in myself.
They believed in me, even when sometimes I did not believe in myself.
Their tremendous faith in my potential pushed me to my highest limits and contributed to the person and professional I am today. They taught me that even over-achievers can use a little help to get going.
I created a five-year plan to become an engineer in the United States. To be honest, I thought I was reaching for the impossible. But I told myself I would give it my best effort, and if it didn’t work out the way I was planning, at least I would end up further ahead than where I currently was.
Once I decided to become an engineer in the United States, my journey started with the most basic step – learning English. Even though I had been living in Miami for a few years, my English speaking and writing skills were not where they needed to be in order to function in college. I also had to take the SAT to get into college. This was my first ever test in English. Not an English test to evaluate my proficiency in the language, but a test to assess my abilities in multiple academic areas.
I have to confess that I never thought I would actually pass. But with my mentor’s encouragement, I tackled this test exactly in the same way I have faced most challenges I have encountered in my life: I made a plan, cranked up my determination, and set myself to do the hard work. I partnered with three teenage English speakers and we studied together in my house for two months. I researched study strategies, SAT tips, test-taking tactics, but the most difficult part of all was vocabulary. You think you know math, after all, I studied engineering back in Venezuela, but when you don’t even understand the problem statement, there is no way you can apply any math concept.
To my surprise, although not so much for my mentor, I passed, and I was able to apply to Miami Dade College (MDC) where I was accepted. This was a really big deal for me. That day I truly understood that what I thought was a fantasy might actually become a reality.
My time at Miami Dade College was a period of growth in many aspects. Of course, I needed to prove myself that I could succeed in a higher education institution in the United States. I have to say that I had doubts of myself at every single step of the way. There were teachers that I didn’t fully understand, which always brought me back to thinking that I was not good enough to be there. However, I never let those thoughts get in the way of achieving my goals. I think the difference between success and failure is the ability to sees one’s fears and weaknesses and still push through to overcome them to achieve a higher goal. Miami Dade College gave me the opportunity to improve myself and allowed me to gain confidence. I have returned to MDC many times to tell my story to those ESOL students. I let them know that even if they have doubts, they will ever speak good enough English, to keep fighting and they will see the results. I am proof of it.
After few semesters at MDC, it was time for me to take the next step and apply to a university. Again, doubts filled my mind and my heart. Getting into an actual university was way beyond my wildest dream just a couple years before, which is why I consider the day I got my Florida International University (FIU) welcome letter as one of the happiest days of my life. FIU became my second home, my happy place, the turning point to finally feel like I belonged here. The level of gratitude that I have for my Panther family is indescribable, and everything started with a simple visit to my advisor at the Engineering Center.
Success is more than good grades
In a very open conversation, I explained my situation and my goals, and she mapped the last portion of my path to become an engineer in the U.S. Little did I know that I would get to spend more time in that building than in my own house. She taught me that getting good grades wasn’t enough to be a successful student. Following her guidance, I started participating in different student organizations related to my career path. That’s how I got involved in the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and the Water Environment Federation (WEF) to mention a few.
That’s where my student experience took off, and this was also the point from where I started to see recognition to the hard work invested on my career. I was awarded with a national STEM scholarship by SHPE in 2016. I was then inducted as a Tau Beta Pi which is the oldest, and one of the most prestigious, engineering honor societies. In 2017, I was selected as one of the two recipients of the John Lenard Civil Engineering Scholarship, a national ASCE Scholarship for Water Resources. The year after that I was chosen by the Society of Women Engineers to receive the 2017 Elizabeth McLean Memorial scholarship. I was honored at the “Celebrate SWE!” awards ceremony at the SWE Annual Conference in Austin, Texas. In 2018, I received the Premio Jose Vila awarded by the Cuban American Association of Civil Engineers, as well as the local ASCE Miami-Dade Branch scholarship and the Past President Scholarship for ASCE Florida Section.
As awesome as all those awards sound, none of them fell to me from the sky; they only came after a lot of hard work. First, I worked hard to keep good grades and served as the president of Engineers Without Borders FIU chapter while taking care of my children and working two jobs to provide for my family. But secondly, and more importantly, I absolutely needed the money to pay for school. As I mentioned before, I was a single mother of two boys with no family living here in U.S., and without any financial support to pay for my classes, therefore, every semester I applied to several scholarships to help me make the next semester possible.
Fortunately, I was able to apply enough scholarship money toward all my undergraduate classes and graduated with zero debt. This showed my children that no matter where you come from, if you have a plan and you work hard you can achieve anything in life. I consider this my biggest accomplishment: coming from a family of modest means, immigrant, single mother of two kids, working two jobs and being able to get to the graduation ceremony as a recipient of the World Ahead Graduate Presidential Recognition. Having the president of the University speak about my story in front of my peers and their families, making my mother and my children very proud of me, and setting an example to them.
I can’t describe how proud I was at that moment, but graduation wasn’t my end goal. All this work and effort was to improve the life and financial stability for me and my family. That included getting a job at a company where I could do meaningful work, make an impact as an engineer, and work with people who respect and value me for who I am.
My best advice
At my advisor’s suggestion, I did a summer internship at a well-known environmental engineering consulting company, Hazen and Sawyer. This was possible due to my involvement in the Water Matter’s Day with the Florida Water Environment Association (FWEA).
From this experience comes my best advice to any current student or recent graduate: Networking is the key to opening doors that you don’t even know exist. I am not saying that networking is going to get you everywhere, but it can get you to the door, and once you are there it is up to you to seize the opportunity and show that you are worth the shot. This is how I wound up at Black & Veatch. While volunteering for an outreach activity, I learned about the summer internship program at Black & Veatch (BV), another highly reputable consulting firm and a global leader in the water and power industries. I applied that day and got a call for an interview the next. My senior year of college, I started working at BV. That summer my workload became really busy. I was working full-time at BV and part-time as a research assistant managing the Engineers on Wheels program at the Wall of Wind at FIU, all while taking summer classes and caring for my kids. The experience I got during that summer was priceless. It was one of the hardest periods of my student life, but I wouldn’t change a bit.
Black & Veatch took the time to invest in giving me a well-rounded overview of what being an engineer was. More importantly, they spent significant time training me on the company’s culture and values. This included treating me as an important part of the team and utilizing my experience on a real engineering project. I now reflect on how privileged I was to be extended a full-time offer to join the company months before graduation and working on critical projects like providing access to reliable drinking water. This is something that many of my fellow countrymen lack, and something I lacked when I was a little girl back in my hometown.
That is when my professional life started. Some may wonder if it’s hard to be a woman in engineering. I think it absolutely can be, but not so much if your company is committed to gender equality. As a matter fact, our office in Coral Gables, Florida is currently 60 percent women. Is it hard to be a Hispanic engineer in United States? Undeniably. But not so much if your company has an inclusive culture where your voices and opinions are heard regardless of your origin, sex, ethnicity or religion.
So here I am, a year and few months after graduation, and I can honestly say that I am living the American Dream. I came from nothing to now work in one of the largest and most prestigious companies in the water industry. My children are almost teenagers (so pray for me!), and they are doing great at school. We bought our first house last year, and the family has expanded to include a crazy dog and an annoying cat. Professionally, I have worked on several projects that will impact my community for many years to come. I have gained the trust of my colleagues, and hopefully, I have set an example for my kids and can be an inspiration to other women who might be thinking that it can’t be done. I’m living proof that it absolutely can!
1. For any single parent: Even if you find yourself in a hole, determination can get you further than you think. If you work hard for your goals and are ready to make this a priority, you can achieve anything you put your mind to.
2. For any immigrant ESOL student, believe in yourself. You can do it. If I did it, you can, too. I am not saying that it is easy, nor that it will happen overnight, but progress is progress, and progress is what’s important. Focus on learning something every day, and one day you will wake up and realize you are speaking much better than when you started.
3. Mentorship is invaluable. I can’t express my gratitude enough to my mentors. Their roles in my story are immeasurable. I truly wouldn’t be where I am right now if it hadn’t been for them.
4. Persevering, working hard, and having a clear plan are key to achieving your goals. Knowing where you are going helps you to find the best way to get there and to find the people that can support you on that journey.
5. For any current student, get involved. This is the best way to meet people and start building your network. A good network is as important as having good friends. It is the way you reach into places where you are not present. Make valuable connections and sooner or later you will see the payback.
6. For any girl out there, dream to be whatever you want. The sky is the limit. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be a scientist, an engineer, or a pilot. Women belong anywhere and everywhere.
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