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Engineering Her Own Future

Maria Hernandez creates her own path to a future in aerospace, with Base 11’s help

Maria Hernandez is beaming as she stands next to her project: a door decorated with colorful flowers, rigged with facial recognition technology that sends an email alert when someone it recognizes stands in front of it, and can be unlocked remotely.

Her mom, tears in her eyes, snaps a photo to post on Facebook and her step dad looks on.

Maria Hernandez with Door Project“They’re very, very proud,” Maria says.

Together, they are celebrating Maria’s completion of the Base 11 academic-year internship at UCI’s Samueli School of Engineering. For 8 months, while a student at Santa Monica College, Maria spent Saturdays at UCI learning skills like coding and how to use a 3D printer, and then applying them to her own innovation.

“These are the types of skills that are in high demand by employers today,” said Landon Taylor, CEO of Base 11. “So we’re bringing together industry, academic and philanthropic partners to equip students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st Century.”

A bumpy road

Maria is quick to point out that her family never expected her to become an engineer. Although she’s always been good at math and science, she didn’t even know what an engineer was until she saw one on the TV show The Big Bang theory.  “In our neighborhood,” she explains, “the closest thing to engineering that anyone did was being a construction worker.”

Base 11’s programs are designed for high-potential, low-resource students who, like Maria, grew up without close role models who work in the fast-growing, well-paying STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).  

Growing up in East Los Angeles, Maria attended the local high school where test scores fall well below the state average. When she transferred to Santa Monica College, which is known for its high transfer rates to UC schools, the courses were much harder than she was used to. “I felt like I was really behind because of the schools I went to and the classes I had access to,” she said.

On top of that, she was juggling family commitments. Every weekend, she drove hours with her mom to their family’s store in Fresno to work all day, and picked up other odd jobs as needed to help out at home — all while carrying a full load to maintain financial aid eligibility. Her school work suffered because of it.

But she persisted, retaking classes when necessary, volunteering to be vice president of the engineering club, and getting involved with Santa Monica’s STEM program — which is how she heard about the Base 11 internship opportunity, which invites community college students to spend time at UCI, Caltech or USC during the school year.

“I was scared going into it because I didn’t think I had enough experience,” said Maria. But her fears were calmed when she started the program, meeting the other students from across Southern California who had been selected for the program, and the instructors in the program. “I liked it that they walked us through things and made us really comfortable if we didn’t understand something.”

During the program, the interns toured UCI’s state-of-the-art engineering labs and learned a broad range of engineering concepts from programming to using 3D printers. They  also were mentored by other students who had transferred from community college into engineering majors, and received guidance from university admissions officers.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Maria struggled to get her Raspberry Pi — which is a simple, programmable computer — to do what she wanted it to without “frying” it. But after dozens of tries, she got it to work. Now she’s fielding requests from her brother and sister-in-law to put the technology on their doors.

“The fact that I was able to finish my project made me realize that I CAN do it,” said Maria. “But you have to first have the confidence to look for these opportunities and apply for them.”

Getting ahead, giving back

One of the goals of Base 11, a nonprofit STEM workforce accelerator, is to strengthen America’s shrinking middle class. “By empowering women, African Americans and Hispanics with STEM skills that are most in-demand at good paying jobs, we can establish a sustainable middle class in America,” said Base 11’s Taylor. “As we do that, we ask all of our students to start thinking about how they can give back when they do achieve their goals, to help lift up someone else.”

Maria already has a lofty goal in mind: someday, she wants to build an engineering school in Mexico.  “I know the education they get is very different there. I want to offer English and Mandarin classes, with the goal that the students to be able to get better jobs and enjoy their lives,” she says.

But first things first. Maria is spending this summer at UCI as a paid Base 11 Fellow, living on campus participating in the Autonomous Systems Engineering Academy, which is a hands-on engineering program based on UCI’s highly successful freshmen experiential engineering course, where she’ll build her own drone. Then, it’s back to Santa Monica to finish her classes and prepare a strong resume to transfer to an engineering program and, eventually, a job in aerospace.

“I’m really going out there and trying to make myself better, and since completing the Base 11 internship, I feel like I’m on the same playing field as everyone else,” says Maria.” And I know if I continue, I will get ahead of the curve.”

 

To learn more about Base 11 academic-year internships and summer fellowships, visit www.base11.com/programs.

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