Opinion: My own McFarland story, with a happy ending

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The movie “McFarland USA” tells the story of a group of Mexican American high school students in the central valley of California who become champion cross-country runners, something that had never been in their family’s plans.

The plan for many Mexican American families, particularly in small rural towns, is to do what President George W. Bush said were the “jobs Americans are not doing,” mostly meaning manual labor. Mexican immigrants and their children often work long hours to make ends meet, but as the runners from McFarland have shown us, when we as a group turn our attention to other tasks we can become champions.

When a Mexican American or Latino becomes an engineer, she is continuing the tradition of hard work and dedication that her family has already established.

— Christopher Hernandez

My father was born in Mexico but raised in a small farm town not far from McFarland. During weekends and in the summer he worked in the fields with my grandfather, a migrant farm worker. Like the McFarland runners, my father was extremely fortunate to have had influential teachers and coaches who showed him a path unfamiliar to his family. He worked his way through community college and California State University Fresno, eventually going on to work for over 30 years as a teacher.

My father’s decision to finish college changed my family’s economic course and his children’s future. Because of the opportunities he was able to provide me, I went to Harvard, and studied engineering. I went on to earn a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford. Now, I am a professor at Cornell University, where I teach Ivy League engineers and direct a research laboratory.

This may sound like a typical immigrant success story, but my path through engineering is not so typical. Engineering and technology jobs are a key and growing part of the U.S. economy, and for the most part, Mexican Americans and other Latinos have not taken part. Latinos make up 16 percent of the U.S. population, but only 6 percent of the engineering workforce.

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Mexican American families have a lot to gain from producing engineers. The average Hispanic American household’s wealth is less than one quarter that of the average white American family. Starting salaries for an engineer with a 4-year college degree often exceed $60,000 per year, making engineers among the highest paid new college graduates. Engineering also pays off over the long term; engineers and computer scientists have good job stability, with relatively low unemployment rates.

America needs Mexican American other Latino engineers. Like manual labor, engineering is a job where we have a shortage of workers. The need for engineers in the U.S. is so great that for the past 15 years we have been granting special visas (H1B “tech” visas) to get more foreign engineers into the country. Engineering is the perfect job for immigrants or the children of immigrants because success in engineering isn’t so much related to where you came from, how long your family has been in this country, or what kind of accent you have. Instead, engineering is like cross-country running, it’s about learning the necessary skills and working hard.

Yes, engineering is challenging. To be an engineer you have to learn new ways of doing things and you have to study and work long hours. A future engineer might have to move to a neighboring city to study or work. But these are things Mexican Americans families have been doing for generations. The first person in the family to come to America probably came alone and left behind friends and family. He or she had to learn a new language and culture, new ways of doing things and had to work long hours.

How do we get more engineers in our community? Here are three things Mexican Americans can do today:  First, challenge your children, your brothers and sisters, your cousins, your nieces and nephews: Why not become an engineer? Why not take that computer programming class in high school? Why not calculus?

Second, tell them about successful engineers like Dr. Albert Baez, a Mexican immigrant and inventor of the x-ray microscope; tell them about the director of the Johnson Space Center, Dr. Ellen Ochoa, a Mexican American, electrical engineer and former astronaut. Like the first members of an immigrant family to move to the U.S., these role models will show your family that success is possible.

Finally, ask teachers and people in your community about opportunities for your children to learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outside of school. There are after-school and summer programs around the country, many of them free. While growing up I attended programs operated by the Mathematics, Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) organization at CSU Fresno.

When a Mexican American or Latino becomes an engineer, he or she is continuing the tradition of hard work and dedication that her family has already established, meeting the needs of our country, and earning a good and secure living. When Mexican Americans and other Latinos take part in designing, creating and inventing the future, we will be helping ourselves, our communities and our country.