Carnegie Mellon University

Valentina Ortiz de Zárate headshot

June 16, 2021

CEE Spotlight: Valentina Ortiz de Zárate

By CEE DEI Committee

What drew you to Civil and Environmental Engineering?

The short answer is that I’ve always liked math and have always cared about the environment growing up (I still have an old safe where I had collected quarters as a kid to donate to WWF). So, environmental engineering specifically seemed like the perfect path for my interests. There’s more to it than that: I have always had a passion for helping others in any way that I can.

Civil and environmental engineering is a field that impacts our everyday communities, and I want to play a role and use my skills and knowledge to help make those communities a better place. This field is a way I can strive to make a difference and leave a positive impact on our planet and others.

How did/does your identity influence your decision to pursue engineering/STEM?

Honestly, at first, I did not think about how my identity influences my decision to pursue an educational career in engineering and STEM. For a while, I was a little oblivious to the fact that being a Latina in STEM was a big deal. I had trouble understanding why it was such a big deal since I always thought I was just a regular student like everyone else.

Of course, things are not so simple. In many of my classes throughout the years (particularly the STEM ones), I have been one of few or even the only Hispanic student. This reality hasn’t discouraged me. Made me a little sad? Yes. But it has made me want to strive further and be a part of the growing representation and belief that Latinx students are capable of achieving their goals and pursuing any degree they are passionate about.

I attended a special STEM conference for Hispanic students last year that impacted me deeply because I saw so many people like me achieving such great things. I came out of that conference with more passion to work hard and represent my Latinx community in fields that others may think we shouldn’t be succeeding in, like engineering.

How did your lens on diversity, equity and inclusion take shape both as you grew up and as you entered adulthood and academia?

As I’ve grown up and entered adulthood and academia, the effects of the lack of representation have become more of a reality. It started with me complaining to my mom when I was a little girl about how there wasn’t a Disney princess that looked or spoke like me (still upset there is yet to be a Hispanic Disney princess movie:/). Now it’s me being upset about the lack of representation in the workplace and academia.

It’s crazy that in our modern society, being a Hispanic woman in STEM can potentially produce opportunities for me when thinking about affirmative action. But it can create obstacles, as I’ve learned over the years, because of systematic unequal opportunities for minorities in this country. My goal now is to be that inspiring Hispanic Disney princess to any little girl who likes math.

What positive experiences have you had at CMU that you would hope others would have?

I love that CMU is a unique place where the arts and technology thrive and succeed exceptionally together on one campus. Ideas bounce around and creative projects are made by meeting and interacting with so many different people with such varied interests.

I’ve always liked to say that the passion at CMU is contagious because you get so inspired by your peers and their projects and your professors and their research that it drives you to work harder on your interests and passions. I’ve met so many interesting and passionate people in my department, my living communities, from various organizations I’ve been a part of, and throughout the CMU community with so many exceptional ideas. Being surrounded by all these different people has helped me grow creatively and passionately as an aspiring engineer and I hope others at this school get driven by this contagious passion too.

In your position as an undergraduate student, how do you advocate for inclusion?

I advocate for inclusion as an undergraduate student by striving to be the best that I can for myself and not for the improvement of diversity and inclusion statistics. I believe that by focusing on how I can succeed in accomplishing my own goals and without thinking too much about what would look good on paper, I can set an inspiring example for others. 

Do you have any advice for incoming (students, faculty, staff)?

Mingle! I think what has helped me grow as an engineer and as a person was my relationships with others in my communities. Connecting with my professors and hanging out with friends from various departments and organizations has made this challenging learning experience a wonderful one. Finding the people that will support you goes a long way.