Former NASA engineer celebrates diversity in STEM

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On Tuesday, former NASA engineer Shayla Rivera shared with students her story, from struggling to learn English to getting to where she is today.

“I had a moment of realization while I was talking to my professor (in English),” Rivera said. “If I can do anything, anyone can do anything. It was a quantum leap.”

Rivera described her experience as a Latina in STEM and encouraged young minorities to pursue their passions. The event was hosted by Gates Millennium Scholars as a celebration of Hispanic Heritage month, which starts Sept. 15.

Rivera was born and raised in Puerto Rico and studied aerospace engineering at Texas A&M. Rivera said she was fearful of going to school because she spoke mostly Spanish.

“My mother gave me two weeks to get over my fear,” Rivera said. “If I could learn English and accomplish this, I could do anything.”

Five months of practice later, Rivera started college and joined NASA a few years later. At NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Rivera worked on a number of projects, including the NASA Space Shuttle and Space Station programs.

Aerospace engineering freshman Raina Ducoing said she was drawn to the event to learn more about her future field.

“My friends and I were talking about careers after school and what that’s going to be like,” Ducoing said. “I wanted to learn more about people of different backgrounds in the field.”

After her career at NASA, Rivera worked in corporate training for stress management at companies such as Exxon. She then began her career as a motivational speaker, comedian and TV personality. She even had a hit one-woman show, titled “Rocket Science and Salsa.”

Kiara Gomez, president of the Gates Millennium Scholars, said she wanted to bring the entire campus community together around an important issue.

“UT has a huge initiative to bring people together and make the campus more inclusive, especially for those in STEM who feel like they don’t really belong,” Gomez said. “Our organization wanted to have a person who is like us and (has) done amazing things.”

Rivera said she hopes students realize what is holding them back and work to overcome them. 

“You have to become aware of your feelings and fears,” Rivera said. “What you’re unaware of controls you, and what you become aware of, you can change.”