It Takes a Village: Bruin Engineer Shares Hopeful Vision for Diversity in STEM
When Krystal Cunningham Ph.D. ’19 first moved to Los Angeles from Jamaica as a teenager, she found it strange that there were community and scholarship programs specifically geared toward minorities. She didn’t find it odd because they were not helpful, but that they had to exist in order for a Black student like her and others from underrepresented populations to have a chance to thrive.
Thanks to such supportive initiatives, the now senior engineer at Raytheon Technologies was able to forge a career path of her own despite experiencing imposter syndrome earlier in her academic pursuit.
UCLA Engineering Alumna Inspires Others through Work at NASA JPL
As a child, Kat Echazarreta ’19 was fascinated by electricity. How does electricity work? And why? How can electricity be used to create new technologies? Now, this UCLA electrical engineering alumna is working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). She knows the answers to all those questions, and more.
Inside her world at JPL, Echazarreta is an electrical engineer with the Ground Support Equipment team where she designs, builds and tests equipment vital to the Europa Clipper mission. NASA’s goal is to launch the spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter’s moon Europa in 2024 to determine whether Europa can harbor conditions suitable for life.
Before landing her dream job at JPL, Echazarreta notes in her blog that her educational journey was not a straight shot.
Accomplished Engineering Professor and Alumnus Creates Scholarships
More than 55 years after earning his bachelor’s degree from UCLA Engineering, Augustine Esogbue still recalls fondly his time at the school.
Having immigrated to the U.S. from his native Nigeria in the early 1960s to pursue an engineering career, Esogbue excelled in his studies at UCLA. He did feel lonely at times, he said, noting he was the only Black student in nearly all his engineering classes.
“I did not consider the challenge of being the only Black in my classes a major liability,” Esogbue said.
In addition to being a Bruin engineer, Esogbue was immersed in other fulfilling campus activities. This included a leadership position as Inaugural Executive Member of the International Affairs Council, as a letterman in the UCLA soccer squad, which was unbeaten for four years in the Pacific Coast Conference, as well as being a language instructor to the U.S. Peace Corps Nigeria group that trained at UCLA.
Evelyn Cortez Diaz is the highest ranking Latina for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power(LADWP) and also the first Latina and second woman to be appointed Director of Water Engineering and Technical Services. Not only has she made significant contributions to LADWP but also UCLA. Cortez is a UCLA CEED alum that has continued to participate in CEED’s professional development events over the years. She has also been a guest Industry Speaker many times in ENGR 87 with the Freshman Class. She obtained her degree in Civil Engineering in 1992.
Cortez immigrated to the US from El Salvador when she was 12 years old and had to become fluent in the English language. She was placed in remedial classes in order to catch her up to speed, but that did not discourage her because she wanted to help the world be a better place. She aspired to protect the environment, so she decided to focus her studies on water resources and environmental engineering. After struggling with language and math classes, she graduated high school as 10th in her class with a 4.3 GPA. Cortez put all her eggs in one basket and only applied to UCLA. Cortez and her family were scared of the risk it had as she was undocumented at the time, but she decided that her education was a risk worth taking. She was accepted and kept her secret. She worked two jobs every quarter in addition to her rigorous course load.
With the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Cortez-Davis and her family were able to begin the amnesty application process to gain permanent residency just as Cortez-Davis was starting her freshman year at UCLA and until her third year she became a legal resident.
Cortez-Davis was involved with SOLES, UCLA SHPE Chapter, and was able to connect with many peers. She was also a founding member of its K-12 outreach program in the early 1990s, arranging visits to local schools to provide math and science tutoring and organizing STEM events for students in underserved communities in LA. She was also a part of ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) in their concrete canoe competition. After spending 5 years at UCLA, she graduated in 1992 and was a Student Commencement Speaker.
She has been a civil engineer for more than 25 years gaining experience from the water industry, water conservation, water quality, pipeline design and construction, environmental compliance, recycled water, water rights, groundwater remediation, and groundwater planning. She currently leads a team to safely reat, store, and transport water for the 4 million people in the City of Los Angeles. At LADWP, Cortez-Davis helped launch the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and SHPE chapters to support its employees and influence the next generation of engineers and STEM professionals. In 2005 she also published her book, “December Sky: Beyond My Undocumented Life,” which chronicles her family’s immigration story, including her fear of living as an undocumented student and her journey to U.S. citizenship. She said she hopes her experience can help those in despair to find courage.