She came to the U.S. with only $300 and worked housekeeping jobs, now she leads the NASA Mars Rover Team

At 17 years old and with only $300 in her pocket, Diana Trujillo moved to the US from Cali, Colombia, to pursue her dreams of studying the universe and exploring outer space. A few decades later, Trujillo now works as an aerospace engineer for NASA, leading a team of 45 people at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

The team led by the aerospace engineer created the robotic arm for the Perseverance Mars rover that will collect rock samples on Mars. Trujillo knew she wanted to pursue a science career from a young age, but many hurdles came her way.

As a Latina woman in a field dominated by males, she wasn’t sure how to advance her career.

Diana Trujillo at NASA
Wikipedia

With her parents divorcing, Trujillo packed her bags at 17 years old and immigrated to the US with only $300. She was determined to succeed in her new country and took every kind of work she was offered.

The teen took jobs in housekeeping to pay for her schooling at Miami Dade College, where she took English classes and enrolled in aerospace engineering courses.

The aerospace engineer sometimes needed to take six buses just to get to school, but she never complained. Despite having to clean bathrooms to afford her tuition, she never became resentful of her situation.

Diana Trujillo wearing a red face mask and headphones at NASA
NASA

“I saw everything coming my way as an opportunity,” Trujillo said. “I didn’t see it as, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this job at night,’ or ‘I can’t believe that I’m cleaning. I can’t believe that I’m cleaning a bathroom right now.’ It was just more like, ‘I’m glad that I have a job and I can buy food and and have a house to sleep.’ And so, I think that all of those things make me, and even today, helps me see life differently. I see it more as every instant I need to be present because every instance matters.”

Diana Trujillo
Twitter

Part of the reason Trujillo wanted to enter the space field was to prove some family members wrong. She wanted the men in her family to recognize that “women add value.”

“It came from wanting to prove to them that we matter,” she said.

However, that would change as a college student. Trujillo recalled being on the line to decide on her major at the University of Florida and not knowing what she wanted. When she reached the dean, she spotted a magazine that showed images of female astronauts, a space shuttle, and the Earth.

Diana Trujillo showing the robotic arm her team created
NASA

Seeing that helped her decide to pick aerospace engineering as her major. Trujillo noticed that hardly any Hispanic students stood in the queue with her. She was also one of the few women on the line.

A similar theme prevailed throughout her career, as she would be one of the few Latinas working in science. Working as one of the surface flight directors for Perseverance reminds her that she represents not only herself but also her country, culture, heritage, and people. This awareness motivates her to give her best every time.

Hispanics only make up 8% of the STEM workforce, of which Hispanic women only comprise 2%. Trujillo believes there’s only one way to break the glass ceiling—to have more role models in the field.

So, the aerospace engineer decided to host NASA’s first-ever Spanish language broadcast for a planetary landing shown. The show, called “Juntos perseveramos,” which translates to “Together we persevere,” has garnered over 2.6 million views on YouTube since it streamed in February this year.

Diana Trujillo at the 2019 MAKERS Conference
YouTube

Trujillo knows that the more women there are, the more Latin scientists and engineers are out there, the more it will motivate kids to pursue STEM careers. More visibility will allow families to encourage younger members to follow those steps rather than take the stereotypical roles they have been told to follow.

“The abuelas, the moms or dads, the uncles, los primos, like everyone has to see this,” Trujillo said. “And they have to see a woman in there, too. So, that they can turn around to the younger generation and say she can do it, you can do it.”

Trujillo hopes to one day fulfill her goal of reaching space, but for now, her mission is to encourage young people—especially women—to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Check out the video below to watch Diana Trujillo’s interview with The Drew Barrymore Show.

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