The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Galveston District celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month with a panel discussion on Hispanic participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers, September 21.
The panelists were: Construction Branch Chief Pablo Hernandez; Project Engineer Griselda Ahumada; Project Manager Eduardo Irigoyen; Water Management Section Chief Jennifer Ramos-Ortiz; Program Manager Rick Villagomez; Civil Engineer Dora Molina; and Civil Engineer Martin Puente.
The Galveston District’s Hispanic Employment Program Manager, Carlos Gomez, assembled the panel after reading an article that caught his attention about Hispanic-American views and experiences in the STEM fields.
The article, and the Pew Research Center study it was based on, took an in-depth look at Hispanic/Latino participation in the STEM fields, Gomez said. “There was a lot of information there indicating a trend within the community I wasn’t aware of,” Gomez said.
According to the study, Hispanic adults make up 17% of the U.S. workforce, but just 8% of those working in STEM. However, since 2010, there has been a growing share of Hispanic students earning degrees in STEM fields.
“I was intrigued by that piece of information alone. Growing up, I didn’t see many Hispanic people working in or studying those types of fields,” said Gomez, who was born and raised in a predominantly Black and Hispanic section of the northeastern United States. “I was curious what the panelists—all accomplished engineers—thought was happening in those 12 years to account for that rise.”
“Work ethic is something that was ingrained in our family from a very early age,” said Villagomez, noting that many Hispanic families—particularly first-generations—toil to ensure their children “have it better than they did.” This often means working lower-paying, labor-intensive jobs to raise their families and give their children better opportunities.
“With that, another thing that was ingrained in us was the expectation that we would all be going to college,” Villagomez said.
“I think what we’re seeing now is the result of that strong work ethic and desire for a better life,” Hernandez said.
“Nowadays, there’s definitely more help available for underserved kids who want to get involved in STEM,” said Molina, who grew up in a predominantly Hispanic community in southern Texas.
“As someone who finished college in 2018, I can tell you there are now much more resources available to help Hispanic kids see their potential in STEM careers,” Ahumada said. “That wasn’t always the case.”
Despite the growing trend, however, Hispanic students remain underrepresented among college graduates and among master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM, the study found.
Among the panelists, lack of resources, finances, and family obligations seemed to explain the lack of Hispanic STEM students working toward higher degrees.
“I was married and had my first child on the way when I was finishing college,” said Irigoyen. “While I had entertained the idea of a master’s degree, I had a bigger priority,” he said. “I needed to get a job immediately.”
The Pew survey results also showed a sense that many Hispanics do not believe they are visible at the highest levels of success in STEM careers.
“This got me curious about what Hispanic representation and visibility in those fields looked like throughout the various stages of the panelists’ careers,” Gomez said.
For some panelists, representation in the earlier days of their careers was almost non-existent.
Ramos-Ortiz also recalled lack of representation among another historically underrepresented group within STEM.
“When I started to work as an engineer, I was the only Hispanic and the only female,” Ramos-Ortiz said, adding that females made up about 30% of the workforce at the time.
“When I got here to Galveston District, there was only one Hispanic mechanical engineer here: me,” Villagomez said.
According to the survey, about 6 in 10 survey participants said Hispanic people have not reached the highest levels of success as scientists. About 44% said the same for the engineering field.
“Representation at those high levels is very dependent on people getting the opportunities to step into those roles,” Ramos-Ortiz said.
Moreover, the survey found that a large majority of Hispanic adults believe seeing more examples of high achievers in STEM who are Hispanic would help encourage more young Hispanic people to pursue degrees in STEM.
“Representation is important, because younger generations need to see that it is, in fact, possible for someone like them—who comes from a similar background—to not only be in those career fields, but also succeed in them,” Hernandez said.
Puente, who’s father is an engineer, cited the importance of seeing that representation at home. “Watching my father work as an engineer really helped shape that desire for me to pursue a career in engineering,” he said.
“Seeing someone like you excelling at something you want to do is crucial,” said Ahumada, who was motivated to pursue her degree in engineering physics after a chance encounter with Hernandez years ago at a USACE event.
Villagomez relayed a story that cemented the importance of representation for him. Some time ago, he was presented the opportunity to help mentor a group of local students from an underserved high school with a physics project. Initially, Villagomez was going to decline on the prospect. After deeper thought, he reconsidered.
“I almost said, ‘No.’ But then I thought, ‘these kids are asking for the exact same thing I wish I had when I was their age,’” he said. “That’s when I said, ‘I have to do this!’”
Villagomez happily reported that one of those high school students ended up getting into college to pursue a STEM field.
“No matter who we are—Hispanic, or whatever—we have to remember to pay it forward,” Villagomez said.
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