Vanessa Vazquez never planned to be the second Latina woman to graduate from one of Oregon State University’s most difficult and traditionally male-dominated programs. When she came to Oregon State in 2007 with her 4-month-old daughter, she wasn’t sure which major she’d pursue, but was committed to obtaining an education — for herself and her family.
“I’m only the second person in my family to go to college,” Vazquez says. “My parents always instilled in my mind that in order to be successful you had to come to college, that’s the only way that you can provide a better life for your family.”
Before long, Vazquez’s natural affinity for math and science that stretched back to building Lego structures as a child led her to Oregon State’s construction engineering management program.
“I wasn’t discouraged when they told me it was a man-dominated field,” Vazquez says. “I was a little intimidated when I went into some of my classes and saw that I was the only girl in there, but I’m just really honored and privileged to represent Latinas and women in engineering.”
The Support Needed to Succeed
Being a full-time mom to her daughter, Leslie, who is now 5 years old, while working part-time and completing a rigorous degree program was never easy. Vazquez struggled to balance school, work and family life, working and attending classes throughout the day and doing homework until late at night, only to get up early the next morning to take Leslie to preschool.
But for Vazquez, who says what she likes most about math and science is the feeling of accomplishment she experiences after overcoming challenging problems, earning a construction engineering management degree while raising a daughter and supporting herself was a struggle worth undertaking.
“I’ve never been challenged like this before, and it proved how strong I’ve become,” Vazquez says. “OSU has rewarded me with so much. The other day my daughter looked at me and said ‘Mom, when I grow up I want to be like you, I want to go to OSU and be a Beaver.’ For her, at 5 years old, to already be thinking about college is amazing. For me that’s the most rewarding thing.”
The motivation to succeed for her daughter’s sake and the constant support of family and friends, Vazquez says, got her through the difficult times when she felt like she couldn’t succeed.
“There were times when I completely just wanted to drop everything and go home and give up,” Vazquez says. “What got me through it all was just having my family and friends there for me. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”
Helping the Next Generation
Vazquez offers similar support to young girls as a mentor through the Boys and Girls Club, where she helps high school students learn to be successful and empowered in the classroom and in their communities. She hopes that her experience of overcoming difficulties to achieve her goals can serve as an example for others who face intimidating circumstances.
“I want to be an example for the young, not only the young Latinos out there but the young generation in general,” Vazquez says. “At one point they might think they can’t make it, and I hope they can just be inspired by what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished to pursue a higher education or whatever their dream or goal may be.”
Graduating, Vazquez says, will be her greatest accomplishment thus far. This summer, she’ll complete an internship with a Portland construction company, and then hopes to work full-time as a project engineer. Eventually, Vazquez says she would like to own a construction management company.
“I’ve grown so much here,” Vazquez says. “I’ve learned to be a better person, I’ve learned to give back to my community and I’ve learned to become a leader. OSU is a very inspiring place to be. When you see how far people have come and how far they’re going to go, it just inspires you to do more.”
-Story by Kayla Harr