Diana Albarrán Chicas still remembers waking up at four in the morning to accompany her parents to their job picking strawberries in the fields. It wasn’t easy, she says, growing up undocumented throughout her school career. But she eventually made it to the prestigiousMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — a school she never heard of before her school counselor urged her to apply.
At 31, Albarrán Chicas is the first Latina, and only the second woman, to be a test section manager at the 50-year-old company, Space Systems/Loral (SSL) in Palo Alto, Calif. She oversees a team of 10 who design and build satellites and space systems for a wide variety of government and commercial customers, including DirectTV and DishNetwork.
“During one of the summer programs I attended as a Junior in high school, I learned about engineering and what engineers did,” says Albarrán Chicas, who originally dreamed of being an architect so she could build her own house when she immigrated with her parents from Mexicoat age 5. “I started to learn more and realized what I really wanted to do was engineering.”
If it wasn’t for that summer program, she says she wouldn’t have known careers in engineering existed.
“My parents only finished third grade in Mexico,” says Albarrán Chicas, who was the first in her family to graduate from high school, let alone make it to college. “I didn’t know about MIT until two weeks before the deadline to apply.”
At age 17, she packed up her bags and moved from Riverside, California to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take college courses in electrical engineering and electromagnetic wave theory.
“What I do now is work at the antennae department,” says Albarrán Chicas. “Through the antennae we are able to design how the satellites are going to define coverage on earth.”
She explains that satellites are launched into space and travel with the earth, linked with ground stations on the earth.
“That’s how the satellite communicates back and forth,” says Albarrán Chicas, explaining the full cost to test and launch a satellite is $500 million. “Once we launch our satellites into space, we can’t really fix them. We have to make sure they are designed properly and tested adequately.”
What she says she really enjoys about her job is the ability to be a problem solver. She says she is still is in awe that she is able to work with such a talented team and do such important work.
“It feels great to be able to come in and break some of the stereotypes that Latinas are not good in math and science,” says Albarrán Chicas. Together with her husband (they met while students at MIT) they saw the need to introduce more young people to science, technology, engineering, math and science (STEM). The couple created Empower Educational Services last year. “We’re trying to pay it forward in terms of everything we’ve learned — especially in under-served communities.”
She also works with Latinas in STEM, created by a group of MIT alumnae.
“The main purpose is to help empower Latinas to pursue STEM fields and thrive,” she says. There’s a big push in improving the numbers, but there’s also a big trend in Latinas leaving STEM. We want to address why they leave – and raise awareness of Latinos who are doing well.”
Personally, she thinks immigration reform is definitely needed because there are too many talented undocumented youth in this country with so much to offer.
“It’s such a sensitive topic, because it could have as easily been me not being a citizen, and I can’t imagine not doing what I’m doing because of not having legal status,” says Albarrán Chicas who became a citizen at 21, when her parents were able to get their residency card and petition for her. “Ten years ago, there weren’t any scholarships for people who were undocumented. It was something that you didn’t talk about.”
She says sometimes remembering that time is still so difficult.
“There were some very dark moments — living in hiding for a long time, not saying anything to anybody,” she says. “My parents have been my source of inspiration — everything they sacrificed for my brother and I, I don’t think I can ever repay that back.”
Originally published on NBCLatino.com.