Astronaut Ellen Ochoa has a message for the next generation of Latinx students who are aspiring to work in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields: "We need you."
“We need your minds. We need your creativity,” she told ABC News.
Ochoa, a first generation Mexican-American, made history in the Latinx community as NASA's first Hispanic astronaut. She took her first space flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. She was also the first Hispanic director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and spent nearly 1,000 hours in space during four shuttle missions.
As the chair of the National Science Board, Ochoa is constantly championing a more inclusive work environment.
“Look at the demographics of our country. They are changing … we have to involve the people in our country. And increasingly, of course, that is people of some kind of Latino or Hispanic heritage,” she said.
For young Latinx students, working in the STEM fields is no longer something out of reach.
“STEM fields offer a unique opportunity to change the world, one person at a time,” said India Carranza, a first generation Puerto Rican and Salvadorian high school junior who aspires to be a physiotherapist. “And being able to help people through their paths and different journeys is one of the unique opportunities of the STEM field.”
Today, Latinx individuals make up nearly 20% of the U.S population and yet just 7% of the STEM workforce.
Among these innovative leaders is trailblazer Jose Hernandez. His dedication and tenacity as a farm worker led him to accomplish his dream of becoming an astronaut.
Hernandez’s resilience has taught many about the importance of never giving up on their dreams.
“NASA rejected me not once, twice or three times. It was 11 rejections," he said. "It wasn't until my 12th attempt that I finally got selected and invited to be part of the 19th class of U.S. NASA astronauts. So perseverance is key."
Louvere Walker-Hannon's triumph within the field of mathematics has led her to become one of the prominent STEM leaders for Afro-Latinx girls.
Walker-Hannon, who takes pride in her Afro-Panamanian roots, said, “Representation matters and it matters in all forms, whether it's visually or in other categories. There are many times when you can walk into an environment and you may be the only person, one of the few that looks like you ... so you deserve to have that seat at the table.”
Organizations like NASA’s HOLA program, The Hispanic Outreach Leadership Alliance, work diligently to help foster upcoming Latinx STEM leaders.
“HOLA tries to engage the community and advocate in a couple of different ways," said Magdiel Santana, chair of HOLA. "So, from a student and educational perspective, we try to invite students to a lot of our events. And we've had students connected with other scientists and engineers to provide them an opportunity for that one-on-one experience.”
As an influential leader in STEM, Santana believes “it's incredibly important to have Latinos in STEM leadership positions because it's a matter of representation.”