Brown, woman, engineer

A personal reflection on being a first generation woman in STEM on National STEM Day

Photo of Karla Lopez with her USC acceptance

Every time I’ve walked into a room as a first generation woman of color in engineering, it has felt like I carry an extra weight compared to my classmates. I always feel like I have to prove that I belong in those classrooms. Whenever I have to turn in an assignment, test, or project, I feel like I have to work harder because if I get a bad grade that just reinforces people’s perceptions of people like me. I do not generally fit the typical stereotype of what people think an engineer looks like. In fact, if you ask most people on the street what an engineer looks like, the first description you’ll hear will not describe someone like me: A Mexican woman who is into fashion and loves to wear makeup. It has always surprised me how much the way we look, our race, and gender automatically creates assumptions about us to others.

Photo of Karla lopez in lab gear

I migrated to this country along with my sister when I was 13 years old from Guadalajara, Mexico. My parents made the choice to send us to the U.S. because they wanted better opportunities for us that we wouldn’t have had in Mexico. In addition, they also wanted safety for us due to the crime arising in our area. It was such a confusing part of my life because I had to move to a new country where I didn’t speak the language, didn’t have my parents with me, didn’t have my friends with me, and I was becoming a teenager. Every aspect of the life I knew had abruptly changed.

I started high school in South Gate, a Latino neighborhood, where 99% of students were Latino. After high school, I was to attend UCLA, however, I did not have the sufficient funds and did not qualify for financial aid so I had to give up my dream of attending my dream college. I ended up continuing my education in community college since they were offering free tuition to all students. I attended East Los Angeles College and began my lower division classes for Computer Engineering. I noticed that my classes consisted of less Latinx and even less women than what I was used to in my high school.

Photo of students at  East L.A. College

In my last year at community college, I applied to Jack Kent Cooke’s Foundation’s full-ride scholarship, which was open to all students regardless of their immigration status. I was beyond lucky to have such a prestigious foundation see potential in someone like me and have them choose me as one of the recipients. After getting accepted to all universities I applied to transfer to, I decided to finally complete my dream of attending UCLA now that I had a full scholarship.

When I started my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at UCLA, I realized I looked very different from my classmates. This is when I began to actually experience a more challenging environment and treatment from my peers and professors. UCLA has a program called Center of Excellence in Engineering and Diversity (CEED) that provides resources and allows the small population of students of color in engineering to network. This was my support system and the only place in the engineering department that actually felt like home. Before coming to UCLA, I was used to forming study groups and making connections with my peers, but that wasn’t happening here. Most of my peers were male and of Asian descent and wanted to study by themselves or wouldn’t even talk to me. I always felt judged because I knew that looking the way I did was part of the reason why my classmates would isolate me or treat me differently. I felt like they thought I wasn’t capable of doing the same things that men in my classes did because I looked ‘different.’ I wasn’t Asian and I wasn’t a man so I was mostly isolated from everyone else who was.

Photo of karla lopez at ucla

One of the most shocking moments I had was during my senior year. A professor was returning test scores and he announced, “This person got a perfect score in the test… Karla… Lopez?” As soon as he saw me get up to pick up my test he looked at me, looked at my test, and looked at me again. It seemed like he couldn’t believe I was the person who had a perfect score. My undergraduate experience at UCLA was very challenging, however, it helped me grow so much. I learned to speak up more and make myself heard regardless of being the only person that looked different in the room. I was also able to show that people like me belong in engineering fields. After finishing my program, I was very proud to be one of the only two Latinas in my major to graduate from the UCLA class of 2019.

Shortly after graduating, I decided that I wanted to pursue a masters degree and applied to a couple universities including USC, which was my top school. Thankfully, I was awarded a couple of department scholarships and Jack Kent Cooke’s graduate scholarship to pursue my dream. I got accepted into the Master of Science Electrical Engineering program at USC and started it in 2020 during quarantine. This experience was different because school was fully online, but I was still able to see that I was the only Mexican girl in all of my classes and even the only girl in some of them. It is clear that electrical engineering is a male dominated field and the higher you move up, the less women you find. I still feel a lot of extra pressure as the only girl in my classes, however, I am now embracing it. I’ve been very lucky to see that at this level, my classmates are more accepting and even excited to hear what I have to say. My advisor even reached out to me at the end of the academic year to ask if there were any resources that I think would be helpful for students like me who are women or come from minority communities. I appreciate that staff at USC seem to actually care and support students like me, which is something I wasn’t used to before.

Photo of of Karla Lopez in front of the Mexican flag

I am very excited to share my unique experience because I was never able to hear stories about people who looked like me or had similar backgrounds. I will probably be the only first generation Mexican girl graduating with a masters in electrical engineering this upcoming Spring 2022, but I am excited to show that we belong in places like this and even more excited to see more women in engineering graduating with these majors. Regardless of your background, your legal status, your gender, or the way you look… you CAN do it. You should never talk yourself out of the rooms you’ve earned your right to be in because there is a reason you are there. Yes I am an immigrant in this country, yes I am Mexican, yes I am a woman, and yes I am also an engineer.