By Bernie Rodriguez, as told to Brandon Hartman
Growing up in Puerto Rico, a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) was an alien concept. In fact, when I mentioned that I wanted to be a scientist, everyone — except for my mom — laughed at me like I was out of my mind.
Living in a poor neighborhood and attending a low-income school, there were no examples of STEM professionals to look up to or learn from, with the exception of cartoon scientists on TV. A college education was not an expectation for me and was not something that the people around me normally pursued. My parents were still in high school when I was born, and they worked hard, sacrificing their dreams to give me the best life they could. Where I was from, dreams were just dreams.
But I had a big dream of going to live in the United States to pursue a career in STEM, and I was not ready to give that up.
Despite it being a U.S. territory, most Puerto Ricans do not see themselves as U.S. citizens. The U.S. often times is considered a foreign land, so when I moved from Puerto Rico to Georgia when I was 22 years old, it presented quite the identity challenge.
Looking for the American dream, I had secured an internship with John Deere and arrived in the U.S. with just enough money to survive until my first paycheck.
The night I arrived, I happened to meet a fellow Puerto Rican at the airport, and they gave me a ride to where I was staying after hearing my story. The next day, I walked three miles to a Walmart and spent $80 — out of the $200 I had brought with me — on a bicycle to get to work.
At first, my new life in the U.S. presented many challenges: I was alone, barely able to speak English and without transportation. All I wanted to do was pack my bags and go home.
I remember thinking I just had to hold on a little longer and have more faith. The old statement, “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” is so true; knowing what I wanted and believing I could achieve it was half the battle. Failure was never going to be an option.
Things gradually began to change. Through a buddy system program at John Deere, I met lifelong friends who helped me navigate my career and my new life in Georgia. I began to learn English and came to realize that the world extended outside my neighborhood in Puerto Rico and that there are so many people changing the world through STEM.
My opportunity to join Northrop Grumman came in 2017 when I attended the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers conference in Seattle. I met Northrop Grumman employee Mark Thornton, who was looking for a software engineer. Although I was a mechanical engineer, I made it clear that, if given the chance, I would learn and deliver whatever the company needed from me. Mark was the main reason I chose Northrop Grumman above any other offer, as he was the first person who believed that I could succeed.
Today, I’m an operations manager and specialize in business-automated data tracking, scaling processes and creating streamlined workflows. I also recently earned my master’s degree in systems engineering from Penn State University. I have been lucky to learn and grow in various roles throughout my time at the company, and I think of heroes like my parents, who sacrificed so much to get me where I am today. It is my hope that I will leave a legacy of being someone who dared to dream — because I know that dreams can survive everything, as long as you believe in them.
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