Latina Leaders: From undocumented MIT student to satellite engineer

Diana V. Albarrán Chicas (Photo/Susie Condon)

Diana V. Albarrán Chicas (Photo/Susie Condon)

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

Advertisements

Latina Leaders: From psychologist to online networking leader

Dr. Angelica Perez (Photo/India Perez-Urbano)

Dr. Angelica Perez (Photo/India Perez-Urbano)

If Dr. Angelica Perez sees a young 20-something girl working in a store, it’s not rare for her to ask, “Are you in college?”

“That’s something I’ve always done, and I’ll do that forever, until I die,” she says. “That to me, is my life mission.”

Dr. Perez has always been an independent thinker. When she was a teenager, although all of her peers applied to the nearest high schools, Perez never limited herself. Instead, she thought, “I want to go to the best school I could go to.”

Today at 45, that way of thinking has taken her far. Besides having her own clinical psychology practice, she also is the publisher and CEO of New Latina — an online resource for other career-driven Latinas, and the newly created online ELLA Leadership Institute, which after only a week of existing, already has more than 2,000 members worldwide.

“What I love the most is when I can help a woman truly identify her potential and embrace it,” says Dr. Perez. “When I can help her see how much bigger she is than she thinks she is, that’s true empowerment… Having them own that, makes my day.

Growing up, as the eldest daughter of immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic, she says she grew up very fast in a neighborhood known for drugs and shootings in the 1980’s.

“You’re what they call the ‘cultural broker’ or bridge — I was always empowering people around me,” says the woman who as a girl made her bedroom a little classroom. “I never felt like I had a childhood or teenage-hood. I almost felt like I was a social worker growing up — putting fires out for a lot of people.”

She says little by little she learned by observing people, how to resolve issues.

“Psychology was a perfect match for someone who wanted to help people and intervene,” says Dr. Perez, who originally set out to be a pediatrician because of her father’s dream.

Eventually, she went on to complete her PhD in clinical psychology from Fordham University.

“The majority of my work is on women,” says the mother of four children, about her 25 year career.

“What I started realizing is that a lot of these Latinas coming to my practice were coming in because they were frustrated by the challenges they were facing in trying to become ambitious Latinas, and figuring out what they need to do,” she says. “So I found myself doing more career coaching than psychiatric evaluations.”

She soon realized what the underlying issue was.

“They were coming in without mentors at work and not having role models,” says Dr. Perez about her patients who had parents who have never worked in corporate America, or attended college. “I hardly have women who are depressed, they just don’t have a lot of confidence.”

She says just as our mother’s were pioneers in a new country, the new generation is now navigating their way into the unchartered corporate world.

“That’s why it’s important to give women connections to influential networks, and teach them what is the strategy to succeed in their career sector,” says Dr. Perez who has been working on creating the Ella Leadership Institute for about a year. “What I want to do is not have inspirational events anymore where women are inspired, and then go home and there’s nothing. What I want to do is create an event that’s value driven.”

She plans on hosting an annual conference and networking events that are TEDx style, with an exchange of ideas. What started off as a group on Facebook, is now an online network of more than 27 groups of like-minded women, grouped by region and expertise.

“I really believe that Latinas are going to globally take over the world,” she says.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Latina Leaders: A social worker teaches to use your own experiences for empowerment

Cynthia Santiago at a workshop. (Photo/Rachel Breitman)

Cynthia Santiago at a workshop. (Photo/Rachel Breitman)

Cynthia Santiago is not your typical clinical social worker, she works full-time as a program director for counseling in New York City public schools, she has a private practice, and offers workshops in self-development which has helped thousands of Latinas and families in the city. In addition to writing her own blog called, Latina Wellness, she contributes to Vidavibrante.com and SoLatina.com.

For Santiago, social work was a pretty obvious path, because she remembers clearly wanting to help others from as young as age 4.

“I was always a very sensitive, compassionate kid,” she says. “I would cry when other kids would cry. I couldn’t really see other people in pain without being impacted. It would kind of crush me.”

She grew up in a home where her step dad used to abuse her mom, emotionally and physically, and one of Santiago’s first roles as a social worker — after graduating with a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University — was working with battered women and children.

“I could think, ‘Oh I had a horrible life,’ that’s where a lot of people go,’” says Santiago, who instead learned from her experience — not to be a victim and to use bad situations to her advantage. “It’s a way of empowerment and dealing with life, because life is life and stuff is going to happen.”

Her life experience, trained her for her future career.

“I always loved helping people, but I didn’t like the models I was exposed to,” says Santiago, describing the theories she learned in school. “There was an idea that you start wherever the client is. There’s also this idea that you have to let people be, but just being doesn’t allow for change.”

So she says she made the decision to be innovative and started offering her patients alternative ways of thinking – at least to provide them with the opportunity to have another view. She would ask them, “Have you thought about this?” or “What if you shifted or reframed where you are right now?”

“That was very different from what I was originally trained to do, and that’s why I started coaching,” says Santiago. “I really believe in helping women, and people, be their best self.”

She says her job gives her complete joy. Her absolute favorite part is writing her blog, because of the fulfillment it gives her.

“My second favorite part is running the group coaching sessions,” says the 44-year-old. “There is such a wonderful tremendous energy I get from sitting in a gathering of Latinas who show up because they want to figure out how to live their dream life. They want to grow and change and improve. It’s so inspiring that I leave those sessions on a natural high.”

She says the other night 22 women came to her workshop, and it was so full of inspiration and energy that she had trouble sleeping afterwards.

“I was explaining to them how much I do, and over the years, I have not really thought about not being able to do it, but how to make room for it,” says Santiago whose typical day starts at her program director job counseling for schools, where she oversees about 24 people. “I’m not really in an office. I go out to the schools and move around. I do Latina Wellness and see clients in the evenings.”

She says she sees a lot of people wanting to make a change, but they feel stuck and don’t know how to start.

“Most people, when they are facing a challenge, will automatically think, ‘I don’t know what to do about this,’ but I help them think, ‘What are my options?’,” says Santiago. “There is always another way, but you have to be in a place to think that way to make that possible.”

Ultimately, she says everybody wants to live a life where they feel meaning and purpose, and that’s why she started Latina Wellness –  to give Latinas the tools to do that.

“I hear from women all the time that they feel empowered, and I can’t express enough how grateful I am to live my dream, and what it means to help others live their dream,” she says.

This article was originally published on NBCLatino.com, and was nominated for a 2014 NASW Media Award.

Latina Leaders: Optometrist and philanthropist says if you don’t like your job, volunteer

Owner of AshramChic, Veronica Ruelas (center) with business partners – her sister, Jennifer Ruelas-Lauro (left) and Caroline Abramo (right) (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Owner of AshramChic, Veronica Ruelas (center) with business partners – her sister, Jennifer Ruelas-Lauro (left) and Caroline Abramo (right) (Photo/Kristina Puga)

For Veronica Ruelas, it was just a matter of seeing life through a different pair of glasses. She says she didn’t always love her job as an optometrist. It took her having an “Eat, Pray, Love”moment and deciding to study yoga in India, four years ago, which changed her perspective on her life and career.

Today, she is not only an optometrist at ArtSee Eyewear in New York City’s Financial District, she also founded Third Eye Vision – a sustainable clinic where international doctors can come to treat and provide training to the local hospital doctors and staff in an underdeveloped section of India. In order to run this clinic at no cost to patients, she started her own line of ashram clothing and accessories called AshramChic.

“I wasn’t happy with what I was doing for a living so I started googling ashrams,” says the 40-year-old New Yorker. “Before I knew it, I was on my way to an ashram in the Bahamas with a tent — the chicest tent I could find.”

The tall, half Dominican and half Puerto Rican-Mexican doctor, who grew up in a rural part of New York, seems to do everything with a natural sense of style and elegance.

“I wanted to make sure if I was having epiphanies, it’d be in a nice place,” says the fashionably colorful Ruelas.

She says four years ago, her yoga missions became her focus. She lived like a gypsy for about two and a half years, putting her belongings in storage and traveling from ashram to ashram. During this time, she learned the karmic yoga principle of giving back.

“As soon as I started volunteering is when I started falling in love with my career,” says Ruelas. “I had a renewed passion when I wasn’t getting paid for it.”

She says now, when she hears people complaining they don’t like their job, she tells them to start volunteering.

“Life is very fair that way,” she says. “It shows what you put out, you get back. It’s a very balanced equation.”

She says she originally chose the field of optometry as arbitrarily as she was choosing what dress to wear. The only thing she says she was sure of was she wanted to be a professional.

“To know what you want to do, you really have to know yourself,” says Ruelas who just now feels she is fulfilling her destiny.

During the last year and a half, she says she feels like she has finally made a home for herself in New York City.

“I wake up at about 5:30am, and I make hot water with lemon,” says Ruelas about her daily yoga morning ritual. “Then I meditate – sometimes only five minutes…I write in a diary the things I’m grateful for and then set my mantra for the day.”

Mantras such as, “I am fun,” and “I am patient,” is a central point to Ruelas’ life and business. Not only does she pick one for herself every day, she also includes them on the brightly-colored beaded bracelets she makes for Ashram Chic.

Most of the time she says she reminds herself to “Go slow.”

She says this is very important in keeping herself balanced while running her three companies.

“I talk to banking guys about meditation,” says Ruelas about the difference just taking 10 minutes to breathe slowly at your desk can make. “Now I realize when you pause, you get more done. You’re more focused.”

She says we also have so much to learn from our abuelitas.

“Abuelitas are the biggest karmic yogis,” says Ruelas. “They put their dreams aside for us…yoga in its highest form is giving back.”

She says when you start helping others, you don’t think about your problems anymore, and answers come.

“Don’t give up, follow your heart, and volunteer,” recommends Ruelas. “Go back to what you wanted to be when you were little. Do what you enjoy doing and help others do it…Show up, let go, and watch the outcome.”

Uttarkashi 2011 from ThirdEyeVision on Vimeo.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com