It's a long way from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Livermore, but for Yahel De La Cruz, it has been a rewarding journey -- and one worth sharing.
De La Cruz, a software engineer at the Lab, discussed growing up in Mexico, coming to the United States and the challenges she faced and opportunities she found along the way, with a group of young Latina women at Las Positas College recently.
The middle-school and high-school aged girls are members of 'Nosotras en Control' (We are in Control), part of Livermore's BasicNecessities program whose goal is to encourage young women to stay in school, and be open to career possibilities available through education. Many are the first women in their family to go to high school and will be the first members of their family to attend college.
De La Cruz was frank about the difficulties she faced coming to the United States from Mexico with her parents and four sisters at 15.
The family settled in Stockton where De La Cruz attended Franklin High School.
New to the school and not speaking much English, she said it was "a little scary," adding that the atmosphere was a bit like the inner city school depicted in the movie "Lean on Me."
A turning point came when her ability to play basketball was recognized. Both she and her sister were skilled at the sport and were quickly recruited for the school team, much to the dismay of their mother -- she wanted her daughters to devote their time to their studies.
That's when the team coach stepped in and made a deal -- he offered his services as a mentor. He would help the sisters with their studies every day after school if they could join the team.
"People who help you along the way make the difference," she told her audience about the coach's generosity.
"My parents knew the importance of a higher education," she said. "They embedded in our heads the need to go to college."
De la Cruz excelled in more than basketball, and although speaking English still remained difficult; her aptitude in math became more apparent. She completed algebra and then went on to grasp trigonometry and calculus.
She attended Delta College for two years and then was accepted to California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Although she considered teaching as a career, she enrolled in the school of engineering. That's where she became interested in computer science.
In addition to her background and education, De La Cruz, also spoke about LLNL and shared a twist of fate that brought her to the Lab.
While in high school, she received a $500 scholarship through the Lab's Amigos Unidos Hispanic Networking Group that is committed to encouraging Hispanics to pursue careers in mathematics, science, and engineering.
Even after she received the award, representatives from the group continued to keep in touch with her. Then, several years later, while attending a career fair, she met Jose Hernandez and Frank Robles, who remembered her. Both encouraged her to apply at LLNL.
"I really don't know who brought me to the Lab, but both men can take credit," she remarked.
She served as a summer intern in the National ignition Facility and in 1999 after completing a bachelor's of science degree in computer engineering from Cal Poly she obtained a full time position at the Lab.
Although nothing is easy, De la Cruz emphasized to the students that: "You make your own opportunities."
As an example of the many types of opportunities there are within today's technical and engineering fields, she gave the students a list of more than 20 positions needed to develop an iPod. These included: hardware engineer, digital artist/engineer, CPU software engineer, display engineer, web designer, and software developers, to name a few.
About LLNL, she said: "Working there has given me the means for economic achievement and career growth. " In 2004, she earned a master of science in information systems with honors from the University of San Francisco.
Today, De La Cruz is active in community outreach such as Expanding Your Horizons, Science Extravaganza, and the Delta College Minority Engineering Program advisory board.
"Giving back to our community, particularly to our kids, is everyone's responsibility," she says. Throughout her career, her desire to teach has never waned. She has taught computer science courses part time at Delta College. "It is so rewarding. I learn so much from my students. I see the changes in their lives."