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Latino engineers want to encourage more to pursue STEM careers

“Challenge yourself to do something that you never would think," said one. "So why not try and do engineering?”
Hernandez-Irisson is now an electrical engineer at Fisher, USA.
Hernandez-Irisson is now an electrical engineer at Fisher, USA.Mark Whaley, NBC News

STEM jobs, a crucial part of the global economy, are growing faster than other industries and tend to pay better than the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hispanics make up 16 percent of the American workforce, but only 6 percent of scientists and engineers, according to the National Science Foundation.

There is ample opportunity in science, technology, engineering and math, according to Latino engineers in several fields. Zaida Hernandez-Irisson, Samantha Dominguez and Emmanuel Rivera spoke to NBC News Learn about their experiences, hoping to encourage others to explore engineering as a career option.

“I didn’t see anyone who was like me in this field,” Hernandez-Irisson, an electrical engineer at Fisher, USA, said. “I want to show that yes, English is my second language. Yes, I’m first in my family to go to college, but there are some of us out there that are making the path for the future generations.”

She grew up in Veracruz, Mexico and moved to Wisconsin when she was 11. She recalls the snowy night she and her parents arrived at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago with nothing but a suitcase.

“It was the beginning of my life and of everything,” she says, getting emotional. “It’s really humbling to think back and how I made everything out of that suitcase.”

She didn’t speak any English at the time, so in school that made her gravitate toward math and science.

Zaida Hernandez-Irisson said, "Looking back, I would tell my 11-year-old self to embrace who I am."
Zaida Hernandez-Irisson said, "Looking back, I would tell my 11-year-old self to embrace who I am."Courtesy of Zaida Hernandez-Irisson

“I didn’t really need to know the language to understand numbers,” she said. “So for my future, I always wanted to be some sort of scientist or mathematician.”

Hernandez-Irisson followed her passion for math and science to a community college, eventually graduating with her engineering degree from the Milwaukee College of Engineering.

“It took me a bit to find that sense of belonging,” she explained. “My first day of class, I was wearing a dress and sandals and had a pink laptop and walked into a predominantly Caucasian male class and was like ‘Oh my gosh, what did I get myself into?’”

Two professors took her under their wing. She said that made a difference for her and helped give her confidence as she pursued her intended field.

“Looking back, I would tell my 11-year-old self to embrace who I am,” she said. “I think that’s what really made me stand out in the engineering field, to know that whatever career I was going to go in to, I was going to stay true to myself.”

Samantha Dominguez
Samantha Dominguez originally planned to attend law school, but switched gears after some professors encouraged her to pursue engineering.Mark Whaley, NBC News / Courtesy of Samantha Dominguez

Dominguez, a software engineer focusing on defense radar systems for airplanes at Boeing, took inspiration from her childhood to shape her career path. She grew up in El Paso, Texas, with an American father and a mother who emigrated from Mexico.

“She always wanted me to do a career that served people, that helped people,” she says of her mother. “She felt that kind of epitomized American women.”

However, engineering didn’t come to mind for Dominguez until after college. With an undergraduate degree in philosophy, she was planning to attend law school. It wasn’t until a couple of professors encouraged her to look into engineering that she found another way to honor her mother’s wishes.

“I know that it’s bringing home someone’s father, someone’s son, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother,” said Dominguez of the work she does at Boeing, which supports military and government aircraft. “The idea that this system is what’s protecting them from getting harmed and also to carry out the mission is a huge responsibility.”

Young Samantha and her mother.
Young Samantha and her mother.Courtesy of Samantha Dominguez

Rivera, a mechanical engineer who works in human resources at John Deere, agrees that engineering can make a difference in people's lives. He said the tractors coming off the line at the factory are helping farmers prepare the land for crops.

“The value that it provides to the farmers and our customers,” he says, “is part of why it feels good.”

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Rivera was always interested in how things worked; he asked a lot of questions. He knew engineering would be a logical step for him, so while attending college in Wisconsin on a baseball scholarship, he explored his options.

He decided on mechanical engineering because of its flexibility when it comes to jobs. In his new role, he focuses on diversity and inclusion at John Deere.

“Work around inclusion has always been a passion of mine — how we manage talent, how we move talent, how we see talent, how we prepare folks for future opportunities," he said. "It’s about our people, our most important asset we have.”

Emmanuel Rivera, a mechanical engineer who now works in human resources at John Deere, believes engineering can make a difference.
Emmanuel Rivera, a mechanical engineer who now works in human resources at John Deere, believes engineering can make a difference.Kenneth Smith, NBC News

Through his work, Rivera aims to boost the next generation of engineers. In the case of Dominguez and Hernandez-Irisson, they are both active in mentoring young girls in their communities.

“I’m a first generation going to college and I like giving that back by being a mentor now for younger girls, so they can pursue engineering,” Hernandez-Irisson said.

She shares personal experiences and advice on how to find their own path to engineering. She helps them see that math and science are actually “cool,” to find a mentor to help guide them, and not to be afraid to ask questions or knock on doors.

“I haven’t had a straight path. It hasn’t been point A to point B. It’s been going downhill and then trying to climb back up,” Hernandez-Irisson said. “It’s a process and you always need someone there for you. I tell them to believe in themselves and rely on their support network at home, and not to be afraid to ask for help. Those are key elements in every career, not just engineering.”

Dominguez agrees. She said she has focused on helping young women build their inner strength and confidence.

And what does she tell those girls who look up to her?

“Challenge yourself to do something that you never would think. The road less traveled, right? So why not try and do engineering?”

Dominguez, Hernandez-Irisson and Rivera are three of 20 engineers profiled on NBC News Learn’s “Discovering You: Engineering Your World” video series. To watch their video stories and more, visit