Congress is formally adopting a bipartisan effort to diversify the STEM industry and encourage more Latinos to pursue a career in science and technology.
Jesus Ojeda earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering in 2019 and a Master’s in Science Degree in Aerospace Engineering in 2020, both from the University of Southern California (USC).
“I think we all had the dream of becoming an astronaut and secondly, growing up in a small town in México we were close to the airport so I would see the airplanes land and take off,” said Ojeda about his motivation to pursue an engineering career.
Ojeda’s hard work led to several internships, including one with NASA. He currently works as a senior systems engineer at Raytheon in Goleta.
Ojeda said it was not an easy journey.
“Where was the dean’s office? Where was the financial office? So mainly not knowing anything, and not having anyone in my family that could guide me through the process,” explained Ojeda.
It's a reality California’s first Latino senator, Alex Padilla, also faced while studying mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“Latinos tend to come from schools that maybe aren’t sufficiently funded. I remember being, once upon a time, being an English learner and trying to overcome some language, not just math, barriers to be able to compete in college,” said Senator Padilla.
The U.S. Senate approved a bipartisan resolution to support Latinos pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
“How are we encouraging more young Latinos to pursue STEM education as you go from high school to college and of course, more Latino students to complete a STEM education and enter STEM fields working as engineers and scientists in so many areas,” added Senator Padilla. “This resolution is the first step of putting Congress on record that this is a formal goal and objective.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, Hispanics were 18% of the nation’s workforce. However, a Pew Research Center study in 2021 found that Latinos only make up 8% of STEM jobs.
“Breaking through that first generation and opening that pathway empowers that whole family but in addition to that it also provides a whole other quality of life,” said Sonia Martinez, the assistant vice-president for advancement and marketing for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU).
Pew Research Center found that the average annual salary for non-STEM jobs in 2019 was $46,900 whereas STEM jobs paid around $77,400.
Of course, some STEM jobs pay much more. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer and information systems managers can make more than $150,000.
The resolution is looking to push colleges and universities to do more.
"We are great advocates of having our students do research, even as undergraduates, working with a faculty member so they can get excited and see the application of all this math and science that they are studying," said Martinez.
Beyond academic retention, it is relying on professional organizations founded and run by Latinos.
“Something that really helped me overcome these challenges was being part of organizations such as MESA and SHPE, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers,” added Ojeda.
SHPE has a program to better inform Latino parents about STEM careers, and they also have grants for those interested in hosting events to inspire young Latinos.
Every year, they organize a national conference to better connect students with companies and schools.
“We were able to give out over $1 million in scholarships this past fiscal year which was the largest amount for us in one year, so we are excited to beat that next year,” highlighted Monique Herrera, the chief external relations officer for SHPE. “We also bring together 300 companies, universities that are looking to promote opportunities for graduate school, as well as internships, fellowships, co-ops and full-time job offers.”
Senator Padilla and Ojeda both agreed that having mentors along the way was key to their success.
“That godfather, padrino [godfather], tío [uncle] in a friendship, mentor form that is going to be there guiding them and pulling them up as they are able to excel in their career,” said Herrera.
Ojeda said he was able to pay it forward with his own sister and plans to inspire other Latinos.
“The best way to encourage kids, first-generation students, all these Latinos to come into STEM is mainly by us professionals going out and spreading the word, letting people in our situation know that it is possible and guide them through the process,” said Ojeda.
While no specific funding has been allocated just yet, Senator Padilla said having this commitment at the federal level can lead to more K-12 and college programs as well as partnerships in the private sector.
For more information on programs by HACU, click here.
To learn more about SHPE and the resources the organization offers, click here.