Friday, July 12, 2019
Cristina Cabrera Jarro
MIAMI GARDENS | When Vanessa Perez Robles was 15, a cousin in his 20s visiting from Colombia asked her what she wanted to study in college.
“Engineering,” she replied.
His response: “That’s not a job for a girl!”
That reaction made no difference to her. But she noticed it did matter to some of her friends at Msgr. Edward Pace High. They hesitated to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) because of its reputation as a males-only world.
Vanessa did not want them to give up. So she pioneered the Women in STEM Club at Pace, a place for girls to talk, learn, support, and inspire each other.
“Maybe not for me, but for other girls it is daunting to be the one girl in a room full of guys coding or building robots and things like that,” Vanessa said. “So I wanted to make a group that was a bit more gender inclusive” as well as welcoming of minorities. Something, she noted, “I didn’t have.”
Her own pursuits in STEM have earned her an Amazon Future Engineer Scholarship valued at $40,000, and an internship at Amazon headquarters after her freshman year of college. She just graduated from Pace at number two in her class, with a 5.56 GPA and a full ride to her Ivy League dream school, Dartmouth.
FAITH, HARD WORK
Not that her path has been smooth. Vanessa’s future is a product of heartache, faith, hard work, and charity.
“We need to fight and see the light at the end. And we always need to pray,” said Yibis Robles, Vanessa’s mother, who remembers praying with her daughters every morning on the way to school.
Robles was born in Colombia. When she was a child, her family moved to Venezuela, where she attended university, married Vanessa’s father, and welcomed her first daughter, Gabriela. When Hugo Chavez came to power, the family left for the United States, where Vanessa was born. She was little when her father left them, and has had no contact with him since.
“Even now I wouldn’t wish for any other upbringing,” Vanessa said. “Even if it was rough, even if my situation with my father was really traumatic and bad, I wouldn’t change that at all because I don’t think I would have the same character that I have now because of what happened.”
Vanessa grew up in what she describes as “a strong matriarchal family,” with only her mom and sister. They struggled financially, and at one point her mom worked three jobs. But when it came time for her daughters to attend school, she insisted on a Catholic education. They had just moved to Miami Lakes and looked to Our Lady of the Lakes School.
“My mom went to Father (James) Murphy (then the pastor, now deceased) and said, ‘Please, I just want to put my girls into a good Catholic school,’” Vanessa recalled. He welcomed them and offered tuition assistance. The parish also helped.
“I remember sometimes we would have to go to the church to pick up food in the Thanksgiving drives. I would get clothes —hand-me-downs— from the community and the church,” Vanessa said.
She sometimes felt that she stood out, as most of her classmates had both parents and comfortable finances. But Vanessa’s mom instilled in her daughters that education was priceless.
“Even if I didn’t have the best clothes or an insane amount of food every day, at least I had my grades and you couldn’t tell me that I was lacking in intelligence,” Vanessa said.
At Our Lady of the Lakes, she excelled academically, was named president of the student council and ran cross-country. In middle school, encouraged by her sister’s experience with Pace’s volleyball team, she switched sports, ultimately becoming captain of the Pace team.
Her interest in science and math came also came into focus in middle school. “In my mind, I liked the application of things. I always thought science was cool in that sense,” Vanessa said.
She craved a hands-on, innovative career and engineering fit the profile. Pace’s STEM-oriented classes helped her see how engineering put academic learning into practice, “and that’s what I loved about it. When you find those applications then you can find solutions to different issues we have in the world.”
One of her favorite classes was AP Environmental Science. After completing the course, she found a book called “The Age of Sustainable Development,” written by a Columbia University professor, Jeffrey Sachs. It pointed out the impact of sustainable development on people who live in poverty all over the world. Vanessa realized that, as an engineer, she could help both people and the environment.
“It was such a broad reach, I loved it. I think in helping the environment, that’s going to help people. We are humans and we need the planet to live, so why not help the planet so that people can live on it,” Vanessa said.
Last summer, she attended Yale University’s Young Global Scholars Program, where she worked on solar innovations and technology. The experience also served as a preview of her childhood dream: going out of state to an Ivy League school.
“I was going to build my own plane and fly myself to the school if I had to, because I wanted the experience of being out of Miami and meeting different people and having a different atmosphere than here,” Vanessa said.
When she began applying for colleges, she realized that, while Yale had been great for the summer, her experience as an undergrad would be different. Many universities don’t focus on undergrad programs and rely on assistants to teach classes.
“It’s frustrating because I’m not paying $60,000 a year for some kid to teach me. College is very expensive and when you’re spending that much money you need to make sure that it’s your best option,” Vanessa said.
She settled on Dartmouth, the smallest of the Ivys, with a little over 4000 enrolled. She was accepted into its Dartmouth Bound program for first-generation, low-income, minority high school seniors.
“It makes it more daunting that it’s smaller. Less people get in. It’s definitely really competitive,” said Vanessa, who hopes her story will inspire others to reach their own full potential, regardless of their circumstances.
“You work hard for what you need,” she said. “If you know that it’s something that you want, you just need to go for it.”