"There are plenty of girls in need of encouragement and eager to find a familiar face. Just seeing one Latina in a non-traditional field is enough to spark a light in a girl’s mind; a girl that perhaps never knew her potential." ~ Patricia
Women Making Moves highlights how women and girls of color are raising their voices to improve the health and lives of many in the areas of sexual/reproductive health, holistic wellness, feminism, activism, entrepreneurship, the arts and sciences, and more.
Meet Patricia Valoy, Women Making Moves spotlight for January 2013. Patricia Valoy is a Civil Engineer and an Assistant Project Manager at STV Inc., an architectural, engineering, planning, environmental and construction management firm based in New York City. She is an advocate for women and girls who wish to enter careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM.) Patricia is also a co-host of a weekly radio show called, Let Your Voice Be Heard! Radio. She has her own blog on feminist issues, Womanisms, and is an avid Tweeter under the handle Besito86.
What I enjoy most about Patricia is how she is succeeding in the traditionally male-dominated field of engineering and is showing young women that they too can step outside of the traditionally held belief that only men can dominate in the maths and sciences. Patricia is busting down the “math is for boys” stereotype, and is inspiring young women to feed their curiosities when it comes to non-traditional career fields, despite what their community may think.
Read more about Patricia, her experiences as a woman of color in the engineering field, how she encourages young women of color to follow their dreams, and how she takes care of herself.
What was a defining moment that propelled you onto the career path you’re on now?
During my junior year of high school I was given the opportunity to do an exchange program in Germany. During this trip I was able to visit an engineering firm and various automotive manufacturers. I became excited about the realization of turning my imaginative and practical tendencies into a fulfilling career. Many people in the sciences will tell you that they have always been curious or in love with building LEGO structures or breaking apart their dad’s stereo system, but my reality was different. I am the oldest sister of three girls. We rarely had any toys traditionally bought for boys, like building blocks and science kits. I was surrounded by dolls, pink jewelry, and fake makeup kits. It was not until my teen years that I started asking my parents for a microscope, watching science shows like “Imagineer That” and “Bill Nye The Science Guy, and asking for a subscription to Popular Science Magazine.
You graduated from Columbia University with a degree in civil engineering. What sparked your interest in civil engineering, and how was your experience in the sciences and as a student at an Ivy League university?
I was very unsure of what I wanted to study in college when I was in high school. I attended an inner-city high school in Brooklyn, NY, where science and math classes beyond the basics were not an option due to lack of qualified teachers and resources.The realization that I wanted to study engineering was profound, but the reality was that I was very unprepared. I had to do a lot of catching up and many times I felt inadequate and out-smarted, but I had to use the resources available to me. Tutoring and mentoring services allowed me to stay on track. I realized that with determination and the right resources we could all succeed. Now that I am a woman in the professional world of engineering, I still fight with feeling inadequate. It’s a two-part struggle; sometimes it’s because I am the only woman in a project, sometimes because I’m the only Latina. Mostly, it’s a combination of both. But I know that if I can do my job well and focus on the product I can create, not the expectations others have of me, I am on the right path. My motto is that confidence is cultivated; no one is born with it. Everyday I strive to stand up for myself, be a role model for other young women (and men) who are interested in engineering, and align myself with people who uplift me.
It’s Career Day at a nearby school, and you’ve been invited to speak to a classroom of 13-year-old girls. How would you describe your career to them in a way that is exciting and makes them want to learn more?
I never turn down speaking to young girls about what I do. Their curiosity and questions are such a rewarding experience for me. When I speak with a group of girls they want to know about what I do, but also about being a woman and an engineer at the same time. I often start by explaining that engineering is not a science. Science is about discovering and engineering is about creating and solving problems. When describing my career I ask the girls to imagine the steps to solving a problem such as a need for more schools or a new bridge. That gives them an idea of how our work is a lot about using imagination and creativity. Then I get into details and explain to them that my career as a civil engineer is about designing and overseeing the construction of the buildings and infrastructure that make up our world: buildings, bridges, railways, train stations, stadiums, etc. And finally, because Civil engineering sounds very similar to Architecture, I make sure to let them know that an Architect’s job is to draw beautiful structures on paper, but a Civil engineer will get the job built.
As a Latina in the engineering field, what advice do you give to young women, in particular young Latinas, who are interested in a career in the maths and sciences?
Being Latina in engineering is lonely. Latinas represented 1% of employed scientists and engineers in the United States. Many factors contribute to that, including the way our culture sees careers in science and engineering as masculine. I wish I could say my family was always supportive of me, but when I decided I wanted to study engineering many relatives thought it was an inappropriate career choice for a young woman and would ask if I wouldn’t prefer to study Medicine or Law. I stuck with my choice, not only to prove them wrong, but also to pave the way for other girls like myself. As a student and now as a professional I have searched for role models I can relate to, but when I can’t find one I strive to become that role model for another girl. There are plenty of girls in need of encouragement and eager to find a familiar face. Just seeing one Latina in a non-traditional field is enough to spark a light in a girls mind; a girl that perhaps never knew her potential.
How have you been able to blend your work in civil engineering with your experiences with feminism?
My career as an engineer and my feminism are one and the same to me. I feel that if I did not apply feminism to my day-to-day life I would not be successful in my career. Most days I am surrounded by men, but feminism taught me to be vigilant of stereotypes veiled in banter and sexism veiled in tradition. Feminism taught me to be assertive in places where I am outnumbered and feel outsmarted. Feminism taught me to see my coworkers as my equals, because I can set the tone for my professional relationships. Feminism has been my reason to stay in engineering when I’ve felt defeated and lonely, because if women before me went to prison just to get the right to vote, I can surely withstand and overcome a few sexist remarks. As a feminist and an engineer, I believe it iis my duty to fight on. I owe it to the little girls that love science and mathematics but are being told that they are not tough enough, smart enough, or passionate enough.
You also are a co-host for Let Your Voice Be Heard!, a progressive radio talk show for young progressive urban young people nationally. How did you become involved with LYVBH and how does it lend itself to your work as a feminist and as an engineer?
Being a co-host of Let Your Voice Be Heard! Radio started as a hobby and has become a second job that I cannot live without. I can’t say my career as an engineer and radio hosting have much in common, but being an engineer has taught me to be assertive and to take on any challenge. When I was given the opportunity to co-host Let Your Voice Be Heard! Radio I saw it as a way to expand my message as a Latina, a feminist, and a science enthusiast. I wanted a way to reach out to other young adults who might feel misunderstood and isolated. Let Your Voice Be Heard! Radio gave me the opportunity to speak on issues that as a feminist and an engineer matter to me, but are not being talked about in the media. Since I’ve joined LYVBH we have discussed issues ranging from sexism in the media, street harassment, and domestic violence, to climate change, mental health, and white privilege. Our show is about making important issues relatable and accessible to our generation. I cannot imagine a better way to be a proactive member of my community.
How did you made the decision to live life on your own terms?
Deciding to live life on my own terms did not happen overnight. As a child I was very shy, but I questioned everything. I was called disobedient for refusing to do things that were expected of me. First it was not wanting to do my Confirmation in the Catholic Church. Later on it was living in the dorms at Columbia University when my family wanted me to commute. And more recently it was moving in with my significant other without being married. These choices seem trivial, but for my conservative family they are signs of a daughter on the path to forgetting her family. I had to prove myself at every step. I had to show my family that I cared for them and that my choices were not done to hurt them. Every day I have to defend my choices, but I’ve learned to see that criticism is due to lack of understanding. Once I can connect with someone at a personal level, how we live our lives becomes irrelevant.
If you were not in the career path you’re currently in, what would you be doing? Would people be surprised?
I get asked this question often, mostly because many people believe I do not look like a typical engineer. If I were not an engineer I imagine I would still be in a creative field, such as advertising or media. People expect me to work in a place where I can be opinionated and creative, because it’s my personality. Iit would not be a stretch to work in media or advertising, my current career is the unexpected!
Given your busy schedule, how do you prioritize self care (the practice of taking care of your physical/mental health to preventing burn-out) into your life?
I thoroughly enjoy being incredibly busy, but I do make a schedule for how much time I can spend on any given task. Most of my days are consumed by working as an engineer, 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday. When I get home at night I prioritize spending time with my significant other and cooking (one of my lesser known hobbies). Late night is when I do most of my research for topics to discuss on Let Your Voice Be Heard! Radio, including a weekly meeting with other members of the show. And much later at night, often while I’m in bed trying to sleep, I write my blog posts or work on a special projects. I do give myself Friday nights to unwind and not think of any work, and Saturdays are reserved for my loved ones. Without my fiance, my family, and my friends everything I do would feel like tedious work. But being appreciated really makes a difference. My loved ones raise my self-esteem. I also have two younger sisters in college; I make time for them because when I was in college I had to fend for myself. I want them to know that they have support. In the end, if I feel like I’m making a difference in this world I can work 24/7 with a smile on my face. I admit, I don’t have much time for my other favorite hobby— shopping, so I am very grateful to the internet and my lunch hour.
What advice would you give women and girls of color on using their passion and creativity to improve their lives and their communities?
The best advice I can give any girl is to nurture her own creativity and ask a lot of questions. I did not have role models in my life that made me want to aspire to be an engineer, or any other profession. The women in my life were all homemakers, and the men were all blue-collar workers. But from a young age I loved to question, and when the adults in my life could not give me the right answer I searched for it myself. I would spend hours in the library reading books, and would volunteer to help organize events in schools. As a teenager I offered free tutoring services to children in my neighborhood. I was not the most glamorous kid in school or in my Brooklyn neighborhood, but it was all worth it. I learned that when I read something I retained about 10% of the information, but when I taught that to someone else, I retained about 90% of the information. Teaching is learning, and we do not have to be adults or professional educators to make a difference. I am convinced that girls in our society are an untapped source of wisdom. We need to learn to trust them with their own well-being, but also with their knowledge. Sometimes believing in a girl is all that it takes for her to succeed.