Setting high goals and achieving them is crucial, says Freshman Eletha Flores of Maryland, the recipient of the 2006 Hispanic Heritage Foundation's National Youth Award for Engineering and Mathematics.
More than 13,000 high school students from across the country applied for the awards. Only nine students were selected in the various categories. MIT freshman Luis Flores (no relation) also received one of the awards in the sports category. The award winners receive $8,000 plus a laptop computer.
Eletha Flores' commitment to excellence started early. "Either I go all the way or I don't do it," said Flores, who set her sights on MIT at the beginning of her high school career. "I knew it was the top engineering school in the country."
Throughout high school, Flores maintained a 4.2 grade point average and consistently challenged herself with summer programs such as MIT's Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) and an internship in space robotics at NASA.ï¿½ï¿½
As the middle child between two brothers and a child of divorce, her time at home was not always easy, Flores said, adding that her high school was not as challenging as she might have wished. Still, she found hardship motivating. "It gave me such a perspective on what life could be."
Flores' Mexican heritage has also provided motivation, she said. As a very young child, she attended a Spanish immersion school, but after the family moved to Maryland, her mother was unable to find one. She lost some of her skill in speaking Spanish, which is something she said she plans to get back while she is at MIT.
Flores' love of engineering and mathematics started early when she was enrolled in programs for academically gifted students. Still, she made a conscious decision to pursue her goals with unusual fervor. "I asked myself: 'Do I want to let life just happen to me?'" Flores said. "Without a strict plan of what you want to do, you end up where it takes you."
In recent years, she has found inspiration from her older brother, an engineering student at Texas A&M University. "He is very creative and has really inspired me to be more into engineering," she said. "He taught me not just to enjoy the cell phone but to actually take it apart and see how I might make one."
One of her older brother's most valuable lessons was teaching her to drive a car with standard transmission. "Not many girls can do that," she said. "It means a lot to me."
Through the years, Flores kept her sights set on MIT. "It was always at the end of my tunnel," she said. When she received the MIT acceptance letter earlier this year, she was thrilled. "I felt like MIT was inviting me to come help make a difference in the world."
While she is at MIT, Flores said, she hopes to dance--"especially Latin dancing," she said. She also wants to study Japanese and go to Japan. "Japan just feels right to me," Flores said. Eventually, she wants to go to graduate school and earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. "I am extremely excited to be at MIT."
This year, MIT was named the fourth- best engineering school for Hispanics by Hispanic Business Magazine.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 4, 2006 (download PDF).