Both my parents are Texans, but I was born at Travis Air Force Base, California, and grew up in California, North Dakota, Georgia, and Texas. My parents first language was Spanish, but they chose not to teach us Spanish so that we would never face discrimination due to an accent. I am the oldest of five children, with two brothers and two sisters. I am the first person in my family to attend college. In an unusual turn of events, my decision to attend college motivated my parents to attend college as well. When I was growing up, I was taught that school should come after all of my other responsibilities at home. Because of this I felt guilty for pursuing an education. In traditional Mexican-American culture, girls are often taught to take care of the house and family, whereas men are in charge and do things outside the home. However, being the oldest, I always had to take care of the others, which put me in a leadership role. This experience would help me later in my education.
I went to thirteen different schools between kindergarten and twelfth grade. Although military schools are excellent, I did not get a strong science background. Junior high was when the pace of my educational development accelerated. I was placed in advanced classes in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. My trigonometry and calculus teachers were very encouraging. My calculus teacher, in fact, suggested that I consider engineering as my major in college, but I just thought ”What the heck is that?” I was also in the concert band and on the basketball team. I learned some very valuable lessons from basketball in those years. We would have two hours of practice, and the first hour and a half focused only on the fundamentals – running, dribbling, shooting, etc. The last half hour was spent on strategy. I began to realize that by concentrating on fundamentals, whether in athletics or academics, a person will have the abilities needed to excel at other things.After graduating high school, I attended a junior college in Georgia. My goal was to be a high school mathematics teacher. I took one education class, and I ended up changing my mind. I had one very interesting calculus professor at this school. My perception was that he was sexist, and he made a couple of comments in class that substantiated my thoughts. I remember one time he asked one of the two other girls in my calculus class a question, and when she didn’t know the answer, he shouted ”You women belong in the kitchen!” Pretty soon I was the only female left in my calculus class. However, this same teacher told me at the end of the year that I should consider applying to Georgia Institute of Technology after I got my two year degree, and that I should try engineering. Although I was offended by this person at first, he ended up being very encouraging and gave me real motivation to focus on engineering.
I chose electrical engineering rather blindly, but I did know that mathematics was my ticket to engineering. I ended up making straight As my first quarter there. There were not very many women in the electrical engineering department at Georgia Tech. I was usually one of two or three women in a class of 80. That fact alone made me uncomfortable. I was afraid to ask my professors questions. I would spend hours trying to figure out trivial things so that I wouldn’t have to approach the professors. In general, I found engineering and mathematics faculty to be very uncommunicative. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA and was recruited by a company that sent me back to school for my master’s degree in electrical engineering. I finished my Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1990, and accepted a faculty position at University of Texas, Arlington. Finally, after all these years, I am the teacher I wanted to be.
It is very important that I am a female who is a professor of engineering. Over the years I have had to listen to comments from others who said I was not qualified. I had to convince myself that I was qualified and that I would get my Ph.D. By concentrating on the fundamentals, I have attained a position that I truly enjoy, and that is the most important point.