As a woman and Latina, Abigail Contreras is a rarity in the field of engineering.
“Let me put it this way, last summer, I was finally able to meet another Latina professional engineer,” she said. “I was really inspired by her and felt an immediate connection due to our Hispanic backgrounds.”
While women make up half the college-educated workforce in the U.S., only 7.9 percent of them are mechanical engineers, according to the National Science Foundation. Only two percent of employed engineers are Hispanic women.
As the only Latina in the OSU-Tulsa mechanical engineering program and founder and president of the student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, Contreras feels strongly about taking her passion to Tulsa elementary school students.
“This has inspired me to reach out to young students and introduce the concept of pursuing a STEM career with an emphasis in engineering,” she said. “I really like volunteering at schools so that young girls can see that it is possible and totally normal to have an interest in math and science and to nurture that interest.”
Twice each week, Contreras and other members of the OSU-Tulsa student chapters of the Society of Women Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers visit a Tulsa school to guide elementary students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) projects.
On a recent visit, she and fellow organization members taught fifth-graders at MacArthur Elementary School how to program a robot. Although several boys were eager to learn, at least half the students who participated were black and Latina girls.
“I think early exposure to STEM encourages children to pursue careers in those fields,” Contreras said.
Contreras was first introduced to engineering in middle school through a community outreach program similar to that of her student organization.
At around age 15, after learning fundamentals of engineering, Contreras even designed a medieval castle using a professional computer-aided design software program.
After that, Contreras was hooked. She continued to pursue engineering while attending Booker T. Washington High School, where she was also an accomplished artist. She received the Sutton Scholarship Award for Student Conservation Art, which paid for her first semester of Tulsa Community College.
She also is the recipient of two OSU-Tulsa scholarships and the College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology Dean’s Award.
“Those scholarships made it possible for me to attend the engineering program of my choice and I didn’t have to leave Tulsa,” she said.
Born in Durango, Mexico, Contreras and her family moved to Tulsa just before she started fourth grade. Commonly referred to as “Dreamers,” she is one of nearly 700,000 young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children and are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
“I want other DACA recipients to see what they can accomplish, particularly women,” Contreras said. “It is more likely for a Hispanic male to pursue engineering than for a Latina. In fact, we are so rare, I hope I can inspire other Latinas to consider engineering.”