Wendy Haro represents a small pool of Latinas in software engineering industry. Her path wasn’t straight and wide one, rather she had to create one for herself. Raised in South Central LA by immigrant parents, living through LA Riots, dealing with the turmoil at home and in the neighborhood, Wendy says she’d never thought about her future. Until other people began to shape the way she thought of the things ahead. Among those people were some members of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, or SHPE. Today Wendy, besides her full-time job as a Software QA Analyst, does community outreach, working with kids to make sure they know there’s another life, different from what they might see in their neighborhoods.

“Picture a room full of kids and everyone tells their different story and I will always start with, ‘Have you guys heard of South Central LA?’ Usually get some hands up. ‘Have you seen a movie Straight Outta Compton?’ You see all the hands go up. ‘Well, I lived through that,’ and you see faces like ‘What? Wow!’ And I always tell them that I come back and talk to you guys as kids because I don’t want you to go through what I went through.

“When I think of my childhood, I think of my grandmother visiting from Mexico. I remember my father. He’s an alcoholic and I remember my mom and dad fighting and they got very physical and my grandma watching and crying and begging for him to stop.”

Revazova: Despite the turmoil in the family, Wendy found a way to shine. She was a bright kid, the nerd of the family, advanced in math and always into electronics.

“Whenever it came to the math section, you had the entire class working on whatever third grade math was working on, and then you had another little table on the side of the room where you had a few Asian kids and little Hispanic Wendy there doing advanced level mathematics. And I remember telling my parents about it and them kind of teasing me about it: ‘Wow, you’re sitting with the little Asian kids! You must be smart.’

Revazova: In late 80s-early 90s LA Riots broke out.

“You could hear everything. You could hear the gunshots, you could hear the helicopters, you could smell the smoke.’

Revazova: As everything was going on at home and in the neighborhood Wendy began to lose an interest in education.

“I just started acting out, just not paying attention, not doing my homework. Stopped showing up to class or to school in general. So my mom ended up reporting me and putting me on probation. That’s how I ended up in the continuation high school.

Revazova: She was terrified by the things she saw and heard from her classmates there. Some would come to the class under the influence. There were gang fights everywhere. So she’d hang out at the principal’s office, with her teachers.

“And I remember our computer system being upgraded on campus. The guys that was doing all the work, and me being curious – I was asking questions and he would answer so many questions that after a while he just asked if I was willing to do it myself. So he led me to take control of the keyboard. He was just telling me what to push and what to enter. It was a secret language that you had to do the way in order for the computer to understand it. That’s what fascinated me. Similar to how I felt as a third grade Wendy sitting there doing advanced level math.

“I never thought about my future, to be honest. It just… I don’t know if it was combination of where I lived and the family life. My brother has never graduated from high school, my sister at that time hadn’t graduated from the high school either. So it just didn’t seem something that I would do because I hadn’t seen it. And then also living in the neighborhood that I did – you never know if you would get caught up in some random drive-by shooting. It was more like taking it day-by-day and surviving day-by-day.

“In high school where I met some really good friends. That family is how I first got more encouraged in regards to going to college. I ended up enrolling for the computer informations systems program. At that time I didn’t know what STEM was, I just knew I wanted to program.

“I found an organization called The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and it was through SHPE that I learned that I wasn’t the only Hispanic kid, first generation American trying to make it in college. I was not the first or only Hispanic kid that had no idea what they were doing in education system. And it was through this organization that I learned to really seek out role models.

“To have a professional member who has already been successful in the field for X amount of years – to have them come and show interest in me? And to ask me what my ambitions are? And to just to show me that encouragement and that support, I think that what was the most pivotal for me; that a complete stranger who doesn’t know me and is talking to me with the sole purpose of getting to know me, to help me succeed, that what was so amazing to me. Like, you don’t even know me, and you want me to achieve my dreams. That was cool. It was really cool. It’s why I continue to do it myself.

“It seems like every year as I meet more students you kind of see whom you can take under your wing, who you can help develop. There are so many students and of course you do your meetings and presentations and you talk to the whole group, but every once in a while there’s one student that you gravitate to and I’ve been pretty fortunate to have couple of those. One in particular, I got a random phone call one day and he told me, ‘Wendy, I just want to let you know you changed my life.’ That just means so much to me.”

listen to Open Conversation episodes also every Tuesday on KJZZ 91.5, NPR member station in Phoenix, Arizona, a bit after 9:30 am PST.

music by Julie Maxwell and Loopstache

recorded, produced by Regina Revazova

note: this content is intended for listening. This transcript might not be accurate. We advise to listen to the podcast to get full range of emotional highlights and other story elements.

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  1. My role model! I’m so proud of you and inspired by all that you do to lift others!

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