Alexandra Navarro came to the United States from Colombia 21 years ago with just a few belongings, among them her engineering diploma. She quickly realized that having established herself as an engineer in Colombia meant little when she arrived in the U.S. and that she would have to start all over again to build belonging in industry and succeed as an engineer.
Advocating for yourself as a woman in a male-dominated industry is difficult, but when you also “add in being an immigrant coming from a different culture with a different spoken language, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to establish yourself,” said Navarro.
Although Navarro faced adversity, she persevered and has become an industry leader, with over 20 years of corporate and nonprofit strategic experience.
In her talk, titled “Lifting Latinx and Women in Tech: The Importance of Confidence and Work-life Balance,” Navarro touched on the importance of practicing self-love and building confidence to overcome imposter syndrome, attaining a network of mentors to support you on your journey, and creating an action plan to achieve personal and professional goals.
There is no such thing as a dumb question
Navarro, currently chief of staff at Paystand in Santa Cruz, faced uncertainty and doubt from the beginning of her educational career. When she graduated from high school at 15, she was the only woman who chose to pursue an engineering degree. In her undergraduate studies at the Universidad de La Sabana in Colombia, she was one of 20 women in a class of 120 pursuing engineering.
“These people were much older than me and very intelligent. I felt like I didn’t belong. I was out of my comfort zone,” Navarro stated.
With very strict GPA requirements and self-doubt settling in, Navarro was on the brink of failing three classes at once. She pushed herself to spend extra hours studying and asking more questions in class. At one point she was ridiculed by a classmate for asking too many questions.
“He said, ‘Are you dumb? Why are you asking so many questions? Will you just let the teacher carry on with the class?’” Navarro recalled. “I knew I was asking too many questions but I wanted to pass my classes, so I continued asking questions, and to my surprise, asking questions helped me develop my critical thinking skills. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”
In the end, Navarro was one of only two students in that class to pass the exam, exemplifying if you set your mind to something, you can achieve it.
Identity, belonging, and success
Navarro’s journey to establishing herself as an engineer in the U.S. took years, but during that time she was able to discover the importance of self-love and confidence.
Positive self-talk and staying true to her values led Navarro to accept herself wholeheartedly, building the confidence she needed to achieve her goals.
Navarro explained that part of finding belonging within industry was locating career opportunities with companies that aligned with her values, including mentorship and diversity and inclusion.
Before Paystand, she worked at Digital NEST in Watsonville, a non-profit organization that provides training and mentorship to students, especially youth from underserved communities, to prepare them for successful careers. She also worked at the national organization Latinas in Tech, which aims to support and empower Latina women in tech. As an advocate for mentorship and uplifting women and people of color, Navarro has published books that address work-life balance, self-confidence, and embracing diversity and inclusion.
“I didn’t have resources or mentors when I was in my degree program or getting started professionally. I enjoy being able to provide the support that I didn’t have to other women and people from underrepresented communities,” Navarro said. ”I highly recommend finding mentors to support your personal and professional growth.”
She spoke on the importance of students finding mentors within UC Santa Cruz, whether that includes reaching out to your professors or signing up for a support program on campus. UC Santa Cruz, and specifically the Baskin School of Engineering, offer several programs that provide academic support, resources, and mentorship to students, from the Academic Excellence Program (ACE) to the Baskin Engineering Excellence Scholars (BEES) and Multicultural Engineering Program (MEP).
Reiterating that success comes from leaning into a support system, embracing yourself for who you are, and setting goals to achieve, Navarro concluded her talk with this advice: “Never stop dreaming, never stop pursuing your goals, and never stop asking questions.”
To access the recording of this event and to find more information about the series, visit the Diverse Voices 2022 website. Tune in for the upcoming event, “Navigating an Age-diverse Workplace as a Junior Woman in Tech,'' on Wednesday, May 18 at 5 p.m.