Her mother's legacy
This second-generation engineer inspires other young women to pursue STEM careers
When Kristen Leyva was just a girl, her mother Jo brought her to work at the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, New Mexico.
“It was the day NASA launched a crew escape vehicle for the International Space Station, and my mom was NASA’s lead test engineer on the program,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, she’s so cool; she’s like a rock star.’ And that’s when I knew I wanted to be an engineer just like her.”
After graduating from high school, Leyva followed in her mother’s footsteps, studying mechanical engineering at New Mexico State University. The classrooms were very familiar to Kristen. That’s because Jo, a single mom, often took Kristen and her sister to classes at NMSU where she was a student when she couldn’t find a babysitter.
“It was very strange to be sitting in the same classrooms that I had known as a child,” Kristen said.
And it was a challenge. Among the 40 women entering the program, Kristen was only one of two who made it to the end.
“I already had a mindset that I needed to work hard at it," Kristen said. "I was lucky because I had a mentor who had already been through it: my mom. She told me to keep the end goal in mind, graduating and becoming a mechanical engineer.”
Two months shy of Kristen's graduation, Jo Leyva died of cancer. It was a tough loss, and Kristen couldn’t bear to read her mother’s obituary. When she finally did, several months later, she was surprised by what she read about her mom:
“Early in her career," the obituary read, "(Jo Leyva) used her position as an engineer to travel to elementary and middle schools in her community to talk and encourage young girls to pursue opportunities and careers in the STEM field…She worked hard to inspire, not only her daughters, but also other young girls to embrace their intelligence and inner strength."
It was a new inspiration. Leyva began traveling to every corner of the state, going into classrooms to encourage girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math. She calls her program #JustOne — that it “just takes one person to make a difference in girl’s life, motivating and guiding her to study STEM.”
Leyva has a new platform for her message: She was recently crowned Miss New Mexico USA.
“I wanted to continue my mom’s legacy,” Leyva said. “And I decided to enter the Miss New Mexico USA pageant as a platform and a way to reach more girls in my home state to get the word out. Since winning, I now have a megaphone.”
Today, Kristen works for Raytheon as a systems engineer on operations and maintenance for the White Sands Missile Range. She takes the same roads to work that her mother did. And she is visiting even more schools now that she has a platform, passing down advice her mother gave to her. She tells girls to be confident and reach for the stars.
"I wanted to be the same kind of role model my mom was for me," Leyva said. “Not every student has a role model; a mentor. I was lucky to have that. I want to give these kids every opportunity to reach their potential.”