After a long day of school and cheerleading practice, Dora Gerardo came home to find a package laying on the couch addressed to her. Curious, she unsealed the envelope and was met with the words, “Welcome to the Trojan family!”
“It was my first [college] acceptance and I remember it just hit. I remember just crying and just feeling like, ‘Okay, this is it. I finally made it,’” said Gerardo.
With three older siblings and one younger, Gerardo was the first in her family to attend college. In May, she earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from USC.
Her parents came to California from Mexico when they were in their late teens. Gerardo and her four siblings grew up in Lynwood, California, just a 20-minute drive to USC’s main campus. For her, a college degree meant not only building a better life for herself, but also giving her something that most people take for granted – personal space.
“I honestly just did not want to be poor anymore. That sounds ridiculous but, growing up, I lived in a house with two bedrooms. There were 13 of us living in that house,” she said. “I grew up and realized what kind of situation I was in and I realized people don’t live like this. People have their own rooms. People actually have their own space.”
As a child, Gerardo spent her weekends on construction sites where her father worked. He gave her mundane tasks to do, like determine how many miles of pipe they needed for a certain project. It was her first exposure to real-world problem solving.
As a high schooler, a teacher noticed her aptitude in science and math and encouraged her to apply for a summer research program at UCLA’s engineering school. “That was my very first exposure to anything of that sort,” Gerardo said. That summer, each morning she would ride the bus from her house to UCLA – three hours there, and three hours back. She did the same thing the following summer.
“It was really just a single teacher telling me that I should apply to this,” she said. “Just having someone say, ‘Hey, you’re good at this.’”
At USC, Gerardo thrived in the communities the university offered. She received support from the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund and the Latino Alumni Association, was heavily involved in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers student chapters, and volunteered for MESA, a program that she participated in during middle and high school that helps underrepresented groups pursue careers in STEM fields.
“I didn’t really have those figures in my life – I didn’t have people that I could look at and think, ‘They look like me, they have the same background I have and they’re also doing engineering.’ I feel like just even having that exposure is a big deal and that’s where I really found my purpose on campus,” Gerardo said.
While Gerardo flourished in her extracurricular activities, she found herself at times struggling with her academics. In her first engineering course, taught by Professor Paul Ronney, she couldn’t make heads or tails of the first homework assignment. Feeling dejected, she sought out his help.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a professor be so patient with me,” said Gerardo. “He literally grabbed a piece of paper and saw how confused I was and took me step by step. He said, ‘Keep this paper because you’re going to realize at the end of your four years how far you’ve come.’ And I still have that paper.”
That paper became a symbol of strength each time she was met with an obstacle and an encouraging reminder of her progress.
After two internships at the oil and energy company Phillips 66, upon graduation, Gerardo began working as a management consulting analyst for Accenture, a global management consulting company. However, through mentorship from Ronney and a desire to push herself further, Gerardo has decided to pursue graduate school to study sustainable energy sources.
“I remember many times where I was the only person that looked like me in a room,” she said. “It’s gotten to the point where I no longer feel bad about it. I now feel pride in it.”
Inspired by the support she received along the way, while at USC, Gerardo helped start a STEM conference for middle and high school girls from her old school district. The conference exposes students to STEM, but more importantly, shows them that a STEM career is achievable for all backgrounds. This year, they will host their third event.
“It’s okay if you’re the only person that looks like you in a classroom and it’s okay if you’re sometimes confused and you need to ask for help. You’re definitely not the first and you’re not going to be the last person who has to struggle with it. But it’s definitely worth it,” she said. “You deserve to be in that spot and should never let yourself doubt or other people tell you that you don’t.”