Vanessa Thompson is a young Hispanic female, pursuing her career as a Civil Engineer at ARUP which is a global design and consulting firm. ARUP is known for very famous landmarks throughout the world such as the Sydney Opera House. Vanessa works in a male dominant industry and is one of the youngest to be invited by Los Angeles County Commission for Women (LACCW) to become one of their committee members. LACCW’s mission statement is “…to represent the interest and concerns of women of all races, ethnic and social backgrounds, religious convictions, sexual orientation and social circumstances.” By being invited to this committee, Vanessa is able to help impact the lives of women in Los Angeles when it comes to education, work, wages, and representation.
BY MARIROSE MEYER
Growing up, where did you see yourself working in the future?
I went through a lot of different stages growing up, as any child would. When children imagine the future they see themselves doing different things and it wasn’t until college that I actually realize what I wanted to do, which was kind of late in the game. When I was nine years old, my brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and that impacted me greatly. I thought maybe I could go to school to be a doctor to find a cancer cure or something. Then I went to college and realized that chemistry wasn’t for me, so that route was put on hold indefinitely.
Then in fifth grade, we had an assembly that was reuse, reduce, and recycle. Recycling trash and plastics was fairly new or catching on in the early 2000s.
What drew your attention to recycling?
I thought that was really interesting. I didn’t really have any experience with it, just that assembly. In high school, I took an AP environmental science class, and that was my backup. I wanted to do something that had to do with the environment, but I wasn’t sure what. Being a first generation, born from Mexican immigrants, my mom was a waitress and my dad was a factory worker. My peers had the same situations where their parents had very basic education and jobs to match those skills. So it was tough. The career aspirations or any kind of examples were non-existent except from teachers and school. That’s why I think I didn’t find engineering until I was in college.
I went to UCLA for my bachelor’s and I got a degree in environmental science. When I got out of school, I found myself having a little bit of a quarter-life crisis. I was like, Wow, okay. I’m 21 years old, graduated, but I don’t have a job lined up. What am I doing with my life? It was hard, because my parents never went through the whole application and interview process, negotiating salaries, and all that jazz. It was hard being a trailblazer in that sense. Thankfully I had really great professors in my bachelor degree courses that steered me towards engineering. And I was thinking Okay, great I can definitely get a job with this.
How did you decide? What was your process?
Throughout my environmental science degree at UCLA I always knew I wanted to study abroad. During my junior year I studied abroad. It wasn’t until I reached the University of Manchester, where they were talking about environmental issues, that it resonated because the environmental issues are the same worldwide. Even though it’s a different space, or a different geology and hydrology, we’re still having the same issues.
There’s still rivers or lakes that are catching on fire, trash collection, and trash inside of water bodies. It is very similar. I’m like, Look, I have all of this knowledge of all these problems, and I have no idea how to go about solving them. That’s when it clicked that I needed to find something that would give me the tools I need for assessing solutions instead of just being exposed to problem after problem. Okay, let’s see, I have a problem, let’s try to find a solution. From there the decision process just happened organically.
People talk about having a hard time figuring out what they’re going to do. A lot of them go to school, get their degree, then go back to get an entirely different degree. It’s really neat that you ended up connecting both.
Yeah, and it was so late in the game. It was my junior year. I go, first quarter of my junior year over to talk to counselors and I’m telling them, “I want to be an engineer.”
They said, “Wait, look at you. You’re going to graduate. You can’t just say I’m going to be an engineer, and you’re already at your credit limit.” I’m thinking, Dang it, but I really want to do this. That’s when I started talking to more engineering teachers and counselors, and they opened up the way. It was kind of crazy ‘cause one of my favorite professors in the school of engineering sat on the admissions board for master’s degrees. He pretty much mentored me. It was really awesome because if I wouldn’t have had that kind of mentoring, I feel like I would have never had the confidence to actually go for it. Especially in my family, I’m the first one to go to college, and once college was done it’s like okay, mission accomplished. But then wait, I didn’t accomplish anything.
You’re thinking, I don’t have a job.
Yeah, and being a first generation college student, there’s an added layer of difficulty or self-sabotage where you’re thinking, Okay, maybe I got into these good prestigious schools because they need to meet a diversity quota. Or I got a job because this company wants to say that they’re inclusive. Sometimes you have to take a step back and really convince yourself that you got the job or that you went to school and got a degree, not because you are a charity case. You actually earned it. My first year working at ARUP, I was feeling that I’m not fit for this. It was mentally difficult, the feeling of not knowing things and not having people to ask. Those are things you kind of work out on your own. A lot of pep talks are involved. [Laughs.]
As a Hispanic female, did being a first generation college student affect your development as an engineer — was it positive or negative?
I am the youngest of three in my family. My parents emigrated from Mexico. I’m a girl, so when I went off to college, they expected me to call them every day and come home every weekend. I’d call them every day, and come home every weekend. Which made it impossible to focus on school, because every weekend I had to juggle a job and being a student. Also juggling expectations from your family members, to be a good daughter, good sister, and attend family functions. It wasn’t until I decided that I wanted to be an engineer and get a Master’s degree that I told my friends, this is going to take a lot of my time.
It came to a point where when I did come around to family events, they would say, “Oh, hi stranger, fancy of you to join us.” So dealing with those added pressures, I think that made it stressful. But on the flip side, it was so much more positive, than negative. Because even though I had to call my parents every day, I saw myself wanting to do that. I like having that support system, where they would actually listen to me vent and cry to them of how I felt inadequate, and not understanding really, really, really, helped.
There were points where they were said, “No, keep going, you can do this!” Then there were also times where they knew that I felt super defeated. They would then say, “Okay, what do you want? Do you want to come home? Do you want us to go pick you up?” It made me realize that they’re supporting me through everything. It became more like, I’m doing this because I want to have a better future. Not just for myself, but for my family. Being Latina and a first generation college graduate and professional, we joke around a lot with our family and friends that I am their retirement plan.
Well, isn’t that also another part of Latina culture? When you grow up you support and care for your parents?
Yeah, it’s what is expected of you.
Were there any negative experiences with friends or people at school? Or was it for the most part positive?
For the most part, it was really positive. Anything negative, it was self-inflicted. It was doubting yourself instead of other people doubting you. I didn’t realize this until later on, but everyone is there to help and support you. You have to know where to ask and have the courage to ask for help. That is the hardest part.
Do you think you got that internal negativity from society at all, or was that just completely just you, your personality?
I think definitely both. Maybe a little more societal, because growing up, I didn’t have very many examples as a Hispanic girl. You’re either going to be a personal assistant, receptionist, or waitress. If you aspire higher, you’ll be a teacher. Those were the experiences or examples that I had to look forward to. When I aspired to do something other than that, the response was, “You can’t do that. Who are you kidding, Vanessa?”
How did you get invited to the Los Angeles County Commission for Women (LACCW)?
I have been a long-time member of a nonprofit grassroots environmental justice group called Pacoima Beautiful. It is a high school program and I’ve volunteer with them since tenth grade. During my gap year when I was going through my quarter-life crisis, I dug deep. Thinking what do I really enjoy, or what would be worth my time? I reconnected with them. It was rewarding to volunteer and know more about the environment. Pacoima is a low socioeconomic area in the San Fernando Valley. A lot of industries were putting their factories here. The neighbors won’t say anything, even though they have super-harmful chemicals and air quality conditions. One of their big goals is to organize the community members and make sure that the community has a voice and is informed as to what’s going on around them. During that time, I just touched base with a ton of awesome people that were very passionate about the same things I was passionate about, which is environmental justice and equity for colored people. I stayed in touch with them, even through college and professional life. One of the girls that used to work there, she was on the commission. She, unfortunately, had to leave to commission and she thought I would be a perfect fit to take her spot. She put my name forward to the LA County supervisor, Sheila Kuehl. I met with her executive strategist and was appointed in January. I’m currently the youngest member on the commission.
Is that nerve-wracking at all? Being the youngest do you feel strange voicing your opinion on things?
It definitely has taught me to think a lot before I speak. All of our meetings are public record, so everything you say will be available for public comment. They’re posted on the County website. Most of the time, what I do is listen. If I don’t have anything that has been well thought out, formulated, I won’t speak. That does come with feeling like I’m a bit young, and I’ve only been on the commission two months. I’m trying to learn by taking cues from the other commissioners that have been on the commission for a longer time. I am trying to make sure that my voice is heard, but also that my voice is intelligible and respectful. I’m excited. A lot of these commissioners are lawyers who are interested in public health and other different aspects. But there’s no representation of environmental justice or environmental issues affecting women. Especially, for moms that walk with their children in strollers outside. If they don’t have adequate conditions, it could be dangerous. Those are issues I feel we need to be bring to light. We need to discuss them and find solutions.
How do you think, you being on the LACCW will impact women in the LA County area from an environmental perspective?
One of the cool things about this Commission is that we are able to review bills and policies that the supervisors have yet to take a position on. When there’s a bill or a policy that promotes more walking paths, safer streets, more environmental services like in the form of adding bio cells or trees to areas that are only heat islands. I definitely want to talk to the supervisors and make our voice be heard because these are things we want for our communities. I definitely want to be a voice for women throughout the County.
Could you give me an example of how companies, or LA, as a whole could better represent women? Especially through LACCW.
It can’t be women advocating and fighting for women. If men aren’t backing us up then it’s an uphill battle if everyone isn’t on the same page.
As far as LACCW goes, every year, we’re in charge of writing a report that’s on the status of women and girls. We are basically taking data and stats of women who aren’t being paid the same, they have equal access to services. I think that’s important to make sure that you’re broadcasting it. If there’s any kind of inequitable practices going on, making sure that the public knows about them. Especially the Commission has opened my eyes to a whole another world. There are some many different commissions and these commissions hold a lot of power. I’m becoming more aware of policies and procedures in the County and the City, it’s really important to make people aware. If people knew about the kind of things that are going on, then they would be moved and affected to want change and bring on equitable practices. But if people just don’t know, it’s really hard to convince them.
Is there something people could do in making the first step towards supporting women in professional working environments or across all environments?
It definitely varies depending on what age group or what setting you want to provide support in. For me, growing up, I didn’t have any examples of female Latina engineers. So I make it a case to go to at least three to four schools a year and talk to students and tell them, “Hey, there is other job options for you out there.”
You are the Hispanic professional female for those young girls.
Yeah, it feels a bit like it’s my calling in life to get it out there and expose people to it. It’s my duty to give back to communities that don’t really have those experiences. I’m definitely lucky because a lot of my peers from high school have gone into a professional careers and come back to the community to share their experiences.
My high school has an alumni association and they put together scholarships for students who are graduating and moving on to college. It’s a really tight-knit community ‘cause my school, when I was there it was a mostly Latino high school. It’s a big family you come back to and you donate your money to make sure these kids have scholarships to go to college. One thing that I love about my community is how resilient it is. They go through a lot to put food on the table, but every day they keep getting better.
As a working female engineer, has the work environment changed towards women since you started working?
There’s a definite push to hire more females. With that being said a lot of female engineers are just getting into the profession. They’re all young engineers, so it creates kind of a weird work dynamic where all of the higher level engineers, like the senior engineers, are males, and those guys are your bosses. Even though there are more girls now, all of the girls are working under the men.
Do you think women bring different qualities to the engineering field compared to men?
Yes, but I don’t think it’s better or worse. I think engineering inherently is about problem solving. If you have different people that think differently, you’re going to be able to come up with a solution that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of previously. I feel from previous experience, women have an easier time communicating, than the men. It’s a definite plus, because it’s great to have great ideas, but if you can’t picture those ideas, then it’s kind of futile.
You are two parts of a better whole kind of thing.
Definitely, I think that as you bring on other engineers from different backgrounds, it’s going to make it even better, regardless if they’re male or female.
We always ask our interviewees to talk about someone who left an imprint on their professional DNA. Is there anyone who has impacted you as a leader or engineer?
It would probably be my calculus teacher in high school. You knew she cared about you. She put on Saturday school without being paid, just to make sure that we were prepared for math classes and preparing us for college. She got us to a place where we could excel by offering workshops and other things. Then she still keeps in contact even after we’ve graduated.
Is that why you are giving so much of yourself back to your community now?
Yes, seeing other people really care about you makes you want to be that person who really cares for other people too.
Marirose Meyer studies anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and is part of the inaugural AD&A Museum (UCSB) and impactmania internship program.