“If you want to wear a pink hardhat then you go and wear that pink hardhat. If you want to wear nails and lip gloss and curly hair, do it! Any company that does not believe in you for who you are doesn’t deserve your work.” – Steminist, Paulina Castrellon

Paulina is a first-generation Latina in STEM and holds a degree in Environmental Occupational Health, focused on Environmental Hygiene from California State University of Northridge. Currently, she is an Environmental Health Safety Engineer in aerospace. Paulina believes representation is a key component to eliminating Imposter Syndrome, a condition many women and first-generation BIPOC experience in various professional fields, especially STEM, so she uses her platform to expose and encourage these very underrepresented communities to pursue their dreams, no matter how impossible they may seem. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she actively works with her community to raise awareness around environmental racism and other social justice issues that directly impact immigrant communities. Paulina has been featured by @engineeringgals @womenwhoengineer @fiercebymitu and so many other platforms, as she continues defying stereotypes and paving the way for more women to succeed. She is one badass Latina who aspires to be the next Erin Brockovich of her community.

Can you tell me a little bit about what an EHS Engineer does?

An EHS Engineer’s main goal is to protect the environment, the occupational health, and hazards for employees in the workforce. Number one is environment. A perfect example is, because it’s kind of hard to explain, when you drive your car you are creating pollutions in the environment, right? You are infecting the environment, causing a hazard to [it]. Number two is occupational health. People who are walking around are now breathing that pollution which later on can cause a health hazard, like asthma or bronchial effects. Number three is Safety from hazards. What are the different types of engineering controls we can figure out, design, and implement to protect our environment, communities, and employees safe from those pollutions? My job as an EHS Engineer is to get those aspects, and depending on what I am working on chemical manufacturing, construction, or as I am doing currently aerospace, is to take all of that, combine it together and make it all safe. My job ultimately, is to make sure that at the end of the day everybody gets to go home safe. No one should get hurt at work, at all!

Wow! Thank you for keeping our communities safe. What an incredibly important responsibility and job! Do you remember the moment you decided to pursue a career in stem? What part of your upbringing may have influenced this decision?

I am a first-generation Latina. No one in my family went to college. Nobody ever focused on STEM. I took a course as an elective, like most college students do, which was the course called EOH 101. As soon as I took this course, I fell in love with it because it was medicine, environmental health, and safety. I had never heard of it before, never knew about it. My father works in construction, so I knew about the construction industry. Nothing new to me, pero the only person I had that was in my life that was in STEM was my high school boyfriend. At the time, he was a civil engineer. So, I approached him about it and said ‘hey, I did this elective. I love it and I am thinking about doing this as a career. Can I pick at your brain and ask you questions like what is calculus? What is physics?’ Things of that type because I knew I would have to take them. Y este tonto me dijo, ‘you can’t do it.’ I said, ‘Why can’t I do it?!’ He said, ‘I know you. You struggle in math and science. You’re going to have a really hard time with it and you’re just going to waste your money. I don’t think you should do it. I don’t think we need to talk about this anymore.’ And I thought to myself, ‘well that’s f’d up!’ I was really mad. I thought he was playing with me but he was serious. Then I went and told my family: my mom, my dad, and my brother. I said, ‘Oye, I found this course. I really like it and I am thinking of changing my major to it. Right away they went to look at the school catalogue to find out what it was. Looking at the list of courses they said, ‘Mija, you do know it’s going to take a lot of work? Mija, there are so many courses. We can’t teach you this or tutor you. We can’t help you with this.’ And I said, ‘I understand but do you believe in me, do you support me?’ And they said ‘yes’ pero I know deep down they were like ‘noooooo’ ha ha. A lot of my girlfriends had kids and got married very young. The ones that pursued careers went to beauty school or they went a different route. I had nobody to talk to, nobody to relate to, nobody to go to. The next day I went to the professor who taught the course and said ‘I want to change my major’ and of course he wants more people to join the major, so we did it right there and then. The following semester I enrolled myself in calculus, physics, bio-chem, and then the upper division. Believe me when I say it was crazy. As I was doing this course, I right away realized that I was in a toxic romantic relationship. I was like ‘afuera con esto!’ Like Beyonce said ‘to the left, to the left!’ ‘I can’t have you and do this because it is already so much on my plate.’ I then got rid of my social media. I told all my friends and family ‘you’re either with me or you’re against me. I don’t care but I am going to do this. And I went for it. I did not graduate college in 4 years, hell no, it was more like 5, 6. But I graduated with a double major. I also took Chicano Studies courses because I really wanted to incorporate my Chicano culture and relate it to Engineering, as in Environmental Racism. Almost like your next Erin Brockovich. I wanted to give back to my community, mi gente. I wanted to figure out a way to help them.

I love the fact that you sought a way to incorporate your culture, and your community into your career’s mission. Did you encounter situations where your peers or professors attempted to discourage you from pursuing this career? How did you move passed those moments of downheartedness?

Growing up in Pacoima a low-income, mostly Hispanic area there was never talk of ‘you’re going to go to college, you’re going to be an engineer, you’re going to live in Beverly Hills.’ My abuelita was like ‘te vas a casar, you’re going to get married, so you need to learn how to cook, how to clean, how to take care of yourself, and you need to take care of your brothers and your cousins. That’s it.’ All I could say was ‘okay.’ I didn’t know anything else. And now I had these people challenging me, telling me that I couldn’t do something that I really wanted to do. I said, ‘hell NO!” I was mad. I had this anger inside me.

I also had professors tell me that engineering is a male dominated field, and my acrylic nails or my hoop earrings or lip-gloss poppin’, or my gold chain, or my gold ring, gifted to me for my baptism, made me look like a chola so I would not be taken seriously. Straight up insulting me. I’ve even had colleagues in different companies tell me that I am never going to make it. That I am not going to last, that no one is going to hire me, if they do it will just be because I have a cute face and more. But I keep pushing, I keep fighting, and I am still here today. I had this situation at work where I had a gentleman say some inappropriate things and the old me, a younger me, would probably have just stayed quiet. But this time I was like ‘come collective, get corrected. You cannot say that. I have only been at this company for three weeks I don’t know what makes you think that you can say this. Let’s go talk to Ethics. Let’s go.’ It is about standing up. Speaking up and nipping it in the butt. Because if it has happened to me, I can’t imagine how many other women it has happened to that did not say anything. I am very much this woman who angry and wants change. I want something better.

Absolutely right! And as an activist in more than one way, you identify as a STEMINIST. Can you tell me a little bit about what that means to you?

A STEMINIST to me, is a female who is in the STEM community, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Also, a woman who advocates and speaks up and supports other women in the community. The STEM community needs to be more inclusive. We need to invite other people in. As a woman of color, I will accept any woman who wishes to sit at our table because there is room for all of us to succeed. I have had women bash me, talk badly of me, and women who sabotage me. I have always told myself, ‘I never want to be that way.’ Because I AM a woman in STEM. It is even more important for me to use my voice, use my success, use my platform to encourage more women to join the community. 

Yes girl! I love your way of thinking. It is such a progressive mentality. When you elevate the female consciousness, you elevate the entire society. Keep this energy going Paulina. This following question is something I feel many women have to deal with and it can quickly become a very uncomfortable situation. In your social media accounts, you have stated you prefer to keep your personal/romantic life and professional life very separate. How do you approach unsolicited advances by your co-workers and professional peers?

Very simple, ‘it is none of your business.’ When I was younger, I used to try to figure out ways to explain and make them feel comfortable but it’s MY life. I am 29 years old, going on 30 and I am proud and excited to be 30 and I have learned that at the end of the day it is none of their business. When I have peers, especially when starting with a new company, who want to start the conversation with ‘are you married?’ I answer ‘no.’ ‘Do you have kids?’ I answer ‘no.’ ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ ‘Nooooo.’ ‘Do you want a boyfriend?’ and I will finally answer, ‘it is none of your business Karen’ and they back off. I always tell women we have to be very straightforward because you do not have to explain yourself to anybody. You’re there at work to do work. I was not hired to because of my personal life, but because they believe I am capable of doing the job. If I feel comfortable enough and choose to talk about it, pues that is different. When I place my boundaries, I do it politely and with a smile and they understand. With stress and anxiety, mental health, spiritual health, and physical health is very important. Some people think it’s rude. But I challenge them to have those uncomfortable conversations, by asking why placing boundaries is considered rude because well we really don’t know each other and should be very respectful towards each other’s boundaries.

Yaaaaas! I am here for all this attitude! I think your assertiveness is an admirable trait. We need more femme role models leading with this confidence and valued self-worth, and you’re a perfect example. As a female engineer, in a male dominated industry, have you encountered situations in which you were overlooked or discriminated against because of your gender? If so, how did this impact you and your career?

As soon as I graduated college, I remember my first interview for an aerospace site for an entry level position. I went to the interview very excited. It was my first real job interview. I did the interview with a gentleman, everything went well. Nailed it. Afterwards, he said to me, ‘I am going to be honest with you. It is only $15/hr and there are no paid benefits’ And I thought to myself, ‘Whaaaa?! I could go work at In-N-Out for the same wage.’ I was very respectful and said ‘thank you for letting me know up front.’ I was also very honest and said ‘Thank you for this opportunity and thank you for taking the time to interview me but this is very different from the pay range I am looking for and benefits are very important to me. Unfortunately, this is not going to work for me.’ He then proceeded to look me up and down as said, ‘No one is going to hire you and I just want to let you know no one is going to pay you more than $15/hr.’ He then threw my resume on the table, while I sat there quietly, and said, ‘remember who you are’ and walked away. I remember that day very vividly because my dad went with me to the interview. When I got to the car I was crying and my dad said, ‘you didn’t get the job?’ and I told him, ‘it wasn’t about not getting the job but what was said to me.’ So of course, like any Mexican father, my dad wanted to go up there and kill somebody. But I told him I had to handle this one on my own. I cried, its okay to cry. It’s okay to feel the feels. But I am worth this number, no matter who said I wasn’t worth it or that they wouldn’t give it to me I kept pushing until I got it. I got that job with even a higher salary, benefits, a relocation fee, a sign-on bonus, corporate credit card, corporate car, and got to travel all around the world. I think it’s really important not to give up when people tell you no. Keep pushing. Whatever you want, speak about it, write it down, be about it. Put it out into the universe. If people think it’s silly, no importa because that is YOUR dream. You just keep going for it and it will happen. The universe works in mysterious ways.

Whew, that is both heartbreaking and so empowering. I am sorry that you had to experience that Paulina, but I admire how you have used those difficult experiences to help you grow into a stronger individual. You have accomplished so much despite the challenges you have encountered. Were there any efforts or connections you made, following your graduation or perhaps right before, that were critical to you obtaining the position you have now?

Yes, this is something I tell everybody! Whether you want to be in STEM, be a lawyer, own a business, whatever! Anything you want, write it down! Tell yourself ‘I am going to work at…’ and then begin networking. Every job you have and everyone you meet is an opportunity to network, to meet new people, to put yourself out there. Always be kind, be respectful because you never know who you’re going to come across in the future and who you might need. People might not remember your name or what you look like, but people will always remember how you made them feel. Don’t expect recruiters to come to you. Don’t expect your dream job to come to you. If you want it, you need to use those ganas and go get it. It’s hard and it’s scary but if you want it, you gotta go and get it yourself. Use the resources you have around you to make sure you have a cleaned-up resume, you have the skills to spark a conversation, and network!

This is very true; manifesting what we want is only the half of it! We have to have the guts to get out there and make something of it! What advice would you give young girls considering a career in STEM?

One thing I would advise anyone: any young woman, boy, person of color, trying to go into STEM is ‘Do not change!’ I can’t tell you how many times, when I joined construction or chemical manufacturing or other fields, I felt like I had to change to be more like my colleagues. I felt like I had to change to be more like what society wanted me to be like. I felt that I had to accept my name being pronounced Paw-lee-nah Cast-re-lon, but no! Correct your name! Stand up for yourself. Speak up for yourself and do not change! If you want to wear a pink hardhat then you go and wear that pink hardhat. If you want to wear nails and lip gloss and curly hair, do it! Any company that does not believe in you for who you are doesn’t deserve your work. When you true to yourself and believe in who you are and you love yourself, you will attract people and jobs who also love you for who you are. I think this is so important. Especially for women who are in STEM. We often feel that we need to fit in, to blend in, to change ourselves. Please do not because you will end up very unhappy and miserable. We need to work together to eliminate Imposter Syndrome. The only way to do this is by loving ourselves first.

You can follow Paulina’s community work on Instagram @paulinacastrellon