Zaida Hernandez-Irisson is an engineer and a mentor. A senior at Milwaukee School of Engineering, Zaida also works in the engineering department at FISCHER USA.
She’s the first in her family to attend college, and she’s now involved in several programs that allow her to mentor young girls interested in engineering. She wants to help them believe in themselves, to succeed. The obstacles she overcame in her own life to become an engineer make her uniquely positioned to help others break through such barriers as language, financial issues, or the difficulty of the field.
Zaida began her engineering education at Gateway Technical College, where she earned her associates degree in both biomedical engineering technology and electrical engineering technology. During her time there, she was named the Student Star Ambassador and Ambassador to the Wisconsin Technical College System, giving her the opportunity to share her story of perseverance.
And Zaida shared some of her story with Diversity in STEAM Magazine, when we asked her about her journey to becoming an engineer.
What made you pursue electrical engineering?
Desire to help people is one of the most influential reasons for me pursuing engineering. After realizing in high school that my original interest in the medical field was not for me, I started to look into fields that could allow me to better fulfil my calling. After stumbling across an aptitude test, I found out engineering was a possibility for me. Learning how engineers help communities through the betterment of communication, transportation, medical instrumentation, and day-to-day devices really confirmed that engineering was the path I wanted to pursue.
What do you love most about your job?
Upon graduating from Gateway Technical College, an international company, FISCHER USA, Inc., hired me to join the engineering department. I was very fortunate to find such an amazing company. Knowing that I wanted to continue my education, I found the support, flexibility, and mentorship I needed within the company. I love that our engineering team is very positive and energetic. We all work on projects together and get to grow as engineers together. Being accepted for who I am encouraged me to purse my passion, and having the ability to grow is what makes me love my job.
What advice would you give others who want to pursue engineering?
I tell students, if engineering is truly their passion, not to let anything get in their way of their education. Even though engineering is a very demanding field of study, the reward of helping others by improving technology outweighs other sacrifices. If you’re in a situation where you’re not sure how to achieve your goal, don’t be afraid to knock on doors and ask for help.
What is the most important thing you learned about your career?
The most important thing I’ve learned about my career is that my opportunities in the field are endless. I used to believe that when I became an electrical engineer I would stay strictly within that focus of engineering. It took me a while to realize that all engineers are problem solvers and that our critical thinking skills plus our educational knowledge can take us in different career paths other than just what is on our degrees.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve had is not losing my confidence and myself. My educational journey has not been a traditional one. Coming from an immigrant family, I had the support from my parents to go to college but no financial means to achieve it. A four-year institution was very far from my reach right after high school. I started at Gateway Technical College as an English Language Learner student to improve my English. Soon after, I showed up to my first engineering lecture at the same college with nothing but the desire to succeed and the dictionary definition of what engineering was. Being in a male-dominated field of study was hard, and it was even harder when most of my peers had engineering experience from high school or their hobbies, and I had none. It took a lot of sleepless nights and mentors to graduate with a dual degree in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering technology. Soon after I transferred to the Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I am wrapping up a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. At the beginning, I kept to myself a lot—as a Latina student, I tried to blend in with the class and not bring attention to myself. I started to lose touch with my authentic self. It wasn’t until one of my professors took me under his wing that I started to understand that being different was a good thing. That showcasing who I was could inspire girls who are like me to pursue engineering. That was the turning point of my career and the beginning of my work in the community.
Zaida has served as a chapter president for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) for three years and is the former Ms. Mexican Fiesta Ambassador, where her she used her platform to spread awareness of STEM fields. As a first-generation immigrant college student, Zaida understands the barriers nontraditional engineering students have to face. For this reason, she plans on continuing to support the Wisconsin Hispanic Scholarship Foundation by promoting higher education among our community.