Sylvia Acevedo is a technology executive and the former CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA. She is also a longtime advocate for underserved communities and girls' and women's causes. She began her career as a rocket scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and has also worked as a technology executive for multiple companies. Sylvia has written a memoir for young readers called Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girls Scouts to Rocket Scientist.
In this interview with Colorín Colorado, she talks about her bilingual, bicultural childhood growing up in Las Cruces, New Mexico and her sister's tragic illness that had lasting impacts on her family, how joining the Girl Scouts changed her life, and her work as a rocket scientist. She also discusses what Girl Scouts can offer young women today and the importance of giving all children opportunities in STEM. And in case you're wondering, Sylvia told Roger Sutton of Horn Book that her favorite Girl Scout cookies are Thin Mints!
Learn more more about Sylvia from the following:
- Sylvia Acevedo: Website
- Gratitude and Rocket Science: Sylvia Acevedo thanks librarians for helping her reach the stars (American Libraries Magazine)
- Interview with Sylvia Acevedo (National Academy of Engineering)
- Sylvia Acevedo Talks with Roger (Horn Book)
- From Poverty to Rocket Scientist to NPR, A Girl Scout's Inspiring Story (NPR)
- Meet the Former Rocket Scientist Who Is Bringing STEM to Girl Scouts One Badge at a Time (Forbes)
Note: This interview was conducted by Lydia Breiseth, Director of Colorín Colorado — and an active Girl Scout from elementary school through high school!
Part I: Growing Up in New Mexico
How my mother ensured we would be bilingual
At home we spoke Spanish mostly, especially when I was really young. My mother was a Spanish speaker because she came from Mexico. My dad spoke Spanish fluently because all of my grandparents on both sides of the family were from Mexico. But he was born in the U.S. But my father was an officer in the military and he was stationed in South Dakota. And I was born on Ellsworth Air Force Base.
So my mother had my older brother, which is a toddler, and then me in an area that was completely English speaking, and she was only Spanish speaking. So it was a really tough moment for her. So when we returned back to the desert southwest, Las Cruces, New Mexico, my mother really realized that yes, we're very proud of our heritage and our language, but she sought out a bilingual missionary to teach my brother and I English.
So she kind of was ahead of her time with faith-based pre-K. And that bilingual missionary taught us English, and my first poem in English was the Pledge of Allegiance. And my first song in English was Jesus Loves the Little Children.
Living at the border
My family, we lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which is only 42 miles away from Juarez, which is the border. And I had a lot of family that still lived in Mexico. So for us, it almost felt like a porous type of a border. My grandfather, my father's father, literally lived a stone's throw away from the Juarez border. There was a pedestrian bridge that you would walk over and we would go do shopping and buy things there and come back to the El Paso side.
So living that close, you really didn't think of a border being this really strict boundary. You knew things were different, but you really just saw the commonalities, especially because I had so much family there.
Illness changed our family
My childhood in many ways was demarcated by before my sister and then after my sister got sick. And before my sister got sick, it was a very Spanish-speaking, immersive family. We lived in a barrio, and I just remember a lot of happy times, and joy and excitement. And then my sister got sick. And there was a Meningitis epidemic that swept through our neighborhood, and some people died. My sister got sick; she had an insatiably high fever that forever altered her brain.
So she became special, but in the Special Olympics kind of way. And that devastated my mother. And that really changed the relationship between my parents and our family. You know, my mom knew that the only place the Meningitis epidemic spread was in our neighborhood, and we lived in an area with dirt streets, so my mother resolved to make some big changes in her life.
And she moved us to a different part of town, a part of town where the streets were paved, but it was really different for me. And so, the book Path to the Stars really talks about that. It has that as sort of the emotional crux of my family, and certainly what happened to me.
Attending a pilot Head Start program
I was in the early pilot year of Head Start, and in my Spanish-speaking barrio neighborhood where I lived, a lot of the parents were distrustful of Head Start. And remember the meningitis epidemic had just swept through. They were just really worried about was this some kind of government program, and they didn't really feel comfortable about that. But my mother at that time had my older brother, had my sister who now had special needs and had me, an energetic child. And I think she decided, "Well, you know what? I'm gonna get my rambunctious daughter out of the house for a few hours every day." So she signed me up for Head Start.
I had an amazing, an amazing teacher, Mrs. Davenport. She really understood me quite well. So she really understood me quite well, and she saw that I really struggled with arts and crafts. I didn't really like that, but she saw that I liked books. And so when the kids in my Head Start program did show and tell, and things that they had made or drawn, she let me talk about a book. And she encouraged me to go home, and read the book to my mother and translate it into Spanish for my mother.
So, again, that bilingual was being stressed, which was very important. And my mother would ask me questions about the book. "So what happened to Spot?" Because I was reading Dick and Jane books. And I would come back to school and I learned how important it was to be engaging when you're giving a talk. And so even at a young age, Head Start really helped me get confidence in my ability to read and also being able to talk in front of others.
Losing a part of my name
I had the opportunity to be in Head Start. And we kind of got off to an inauspicious start because my mom really didn't speak my English. And on the first form where they asked me to fill out my name, I grew up with my name being Sylvia Elia Acevedo Monge. And when we were looking at the form, there was only a space for two names.
And I didn't know where I was gonna put Sylvia Elia Acevedo Monge. And when we said, "What do we put in there?" And they said, "Well, your name." And I said, "My name is Sylvia Elia Acevedo Monge." And they said, "Choose two." So my mom said, "Okay. Put Sylvia Acevedo." And I felt kind of stripped—a little bit of my identity stripped by that.
It's so important to get a child's name right because that is their identity. When they're young, that's how they develop who they are. So for me, I was Sylvia Elia Acevedo Monge. And I went home and I asked my dad. And he said, "Well there's a lot of things that are different in the United States, and that's one of them."
But for us we were very proud, and it almost sounded lyrical, all my brothers and my sister. We had those four names. Mario Umberto Acevedo Monge. Laura Elena Acevedo Monge. Armando Gustavo Acevedo Monge. That was just our name. So it just did feel a little bit abrogated to just have those two names.
Challenges and triumphs in a new school
When I first went to that new school, it was in the middle of a school year, which is always tough to change schools in the middle of a school year so I wasn't really pleased about that. And there were a lot of kids in my class, and my teacher had a way of academic ranking, stack ranking where people sat. So the kids who were doing better in class, she had them sit next to her. And the kids that were doing the worst, were seated the furthest away from her.
And when I started, the principal said—I was from Bradley Elementary, sort of saying that was not a very good school. So she put me all the way in the last row in the last seat. And I remember this boy turning around and looking at me and said, "Now, you're the dumbest one in class." And I remember thinking how much I hated that school. I hated everything. And I just sat there and it was just really a tough experience for me to have joined in the middle of the class and then to have had that kind of experience.
One of the things that happened, was early on while I was at that classroom, we had a Weekly Reader. And so what that teacher did was have every student read from the Weekly Reader. And, of course, the kids who were doing well academically, they read fine. But as the Weekly Reader went on and went to where my row was, the kids were really struggling with reading. And when it finally came to my time to read, it was about the astronauts.
And I read very well. And the teacher was really surprised and she said, "Keep reading." And I continued to keep reading. And I read well. She immediately stopped everything and moved me to the middle of the class right there. And I remember being so grateful that I had an opportunity to be in Head Start.
My first library card
Libraries were an important part of our life. My father loved to go to the library. My father loved to read. And we wanted to go with him. But when you didn't know how to read, he didn't really want to take you. And my brother, because he was older and got to read first, so my father would take him. And then when I started to learn how to read, I wanted to go, but my father said, "You can't go until you have a library card."
And he said, "You need to save up five dollars before you can get a library card." And that was one of those weird things that I learned, that the rules were different between my brother and myself. So I went on a mission to save money. And back then, there were these things called payphones and people would put money in them, coins in them. And every time I saw a payphone, I would go and see if there was any change left.
And every once in a while I would get lucky. Or my father carried coins in his pocket, and when he'd sit on the sofa, sometimes the coins would fall out, and I'd always go and get them. And little by little, I filled up this ceramic kitty bank, and for my birthday, relatives would maybe give me a dollar bill I'd fold up, I'd be so excited. And little by little, I'd keep shaking that cat and really wanting it to be filled so I could get five dollars.
So finally one day, we were able to crack it, my mother and I. And we had more than five dollars. And with that, I could open up a savings account and I could finally go and get my own library card. And I remember just rushing to the library to get my own library card with my name on it so I could check out books.
The beauty of being bilingual
One of the great things about being bilingual is that it teaches you that you're not only bilingual, you're bicultural, and so you'll immediately see that people are these amazing, wonderful families that really are created and formed in reflection to the area where they're from. And so, you can see somebody who's from Mexico and they're a relative of you and you have so much common, but because of where they're raised, there are so many things with culture that has formed them to make them a little bit different. And you have that awareness.
And then you realize, you know that's the same for people in Asia, that's the same for people in India, that's the same for people in France. And, for me, as a young girl, one of my early role models was Florence Nightingale. I remember people saying, "Well, she's not from the U.S." But I remember thinking "You know, I'm American. I have so many families that are Mexican. I can learn from them."
"And here's this woman who's from England. I can learn from them." So having that bilingual, bicultural brain and that mindset makes you realize how rich the world is and how much you can learn from others. And it is an additive, not a negative to your life.
Part II: How the Girls Scouts Changed My Life
Becoming a Brownie
One of the things that I had seen is that girls sometimes would show up all wearing the same dress. And I didn't know what it was about. And I wasn't happy at that school, so I didn't really care to investigate. And I would always run home after school. But one day, one of those girls wearing a brown dress really struggled to keep up with me. And the more she tried to keep up with me, the more I ran faster to get away from her.
But she caught up with me in front of my house. And she said she wanted to invite me to an afterschool program. It was Brownie Girl Scouts. And I said no. And she said, "Go ask your mom." And one of the things Girl Scouts teach you to be persistent, so I said, "Okay." And I went in and asked my mom, who was cooking dinner, and she said to me, "Go ahead and go." She just wanted to know where I was going to be.
And it was just right around the corner. So I went. And from the moment I entered that meeting, it was such great organization, the girls were doing a lot of fun things. There were refreshments which I liked. But just the great activities that were going on. I realized there were girls like me that liked doing things and were really active and I really fell in love with Girl Scouts.
Finding a home with the Girl Scouts
Here I was just really enjoying my first meeting at Girls Scouts doing lots of fun activities. We were getting ready to go on a day activity to the park. And we were making these things called "sit-upons", which we could cut strips of paper and fabric, and then we would weave them together to sit upon, so they were called sit-upons.
And I was cutting the newspaper, and the girl next to me asked for the scissors, and so I just handed her the scissors, but I handed her the scissors the pointy edge first. And the troop leader stopped everything and I wondered what happened. And so she asked some Brownies to demonstrate the proper way of passing scissors. And I immediately thought, "Oh no." Well these girls passed the scissors, and then they said, "And there's another rule. Never run with scissors."
And I remember thinking I didn't know there was a) rules about scissors, and two, that there was more than one rule. But then I kind of felt hot shame. But then no one looked at me. And everybody went back to what they were doing. And I realized that at Girl Scouts, they really cared about my safety, and they wanted me to have fun and to learn things. And given that my family just had this traumatic episode with my sister where she'd gotten Meningitis and it had changed her forever, and it had been so hard on my family, it was such a tragedy, that I realized that this organization, if they cared about how they pass the scissors, imagine what else they would care about. And I realized that this was really the place for me.
How selling Girl Scout cookies taught me to set goals and create opportunity
I was just so excited about Girl Scouts and what I was learning. I joined in the middle of the school year. And so at the beginning of the next year as were planning out the full year, we were going to plan all these amazing activities. And I thought, "There's no way my family," which we were always near poverty living paycheck to paycheck, "that there's no way we could afford this." So I stayed behind and I told my troop leader I was gonna have to quit Girl Scouts.
And she said, "Sylvia, you love Girl Scouts." And I said, "I know, but my family can't afford it." And she said, "Don't worry. We're gonna sell cookies." And I learned about the Girl Scout cookie program. And the cookie program is really to teach girls how to create opportunities for themselves. And she taught me that you set goals and then you break those goals down into smaller achievable parts, and that you also create a budget.
And that you learn how to set goals around achieving that budget. And that you learn about good customer service and delivering the cookies. And I thought "My goodness." So it really taught me how to create opportunity. But for somebody raised in near poverty living paycheck to paycheck, you don't know how to create opportunity. If you did, you wouldn't be in near poverty or poverty. So it really taught me. It was mind-opening for me because it really taught me a huge secret to success in life.
It's just how to create opportunity. You can make goals. You can make dreams, and how to break them down into smaller achievable parts.
How selling Girl Scout cookies taught me to turn a ‘no' into a ‘yes'
And the other thing she taught me, which also was a great skill that I've used all my life, which is: Don't ever walk away from a sale until you've heard "no" three times. And when I had, I thought, a really high goal back then to sell cookies, and I sold to my family, I sold to the people at church and I was still below my goal.
So I knew I was going to have to talk to people who I had seen but never spoken to. And I went to one of those neighbors' homes, and I knocked on the door and she came to the door, and I asked her if she'd like to buy Girl Scout cookies and she said "no." And I remember standing there and thinking Troop Leader Mrs. Provine told me I could not walk away from a sale until I heard no three times so I stood there. And she looked at me like "Didn't you hear ‘no'?"
And so I looked around her and I said, "Is there anyone else who might want to buy some Girl Scout cookies?" And she said, ‘No.' Again she looked at me like "I've told you no, go". And so I thought "Well, that's two no's". So then I said, "Would there be anybody's day you would make by buying Girl Scout cookies?" And she bought a box. I don't know if it was to get rid of me, but she bought a box. And I really learned about persistence, determination.
So throughout my career, many times I'd been told ‘No' and I just tried to figured out how do I make that a ‘Yes.' And that has really been something that has propelled my entire career forward.
How Girl Scouts taught me to make contingency plans
One of the things you learn at Girl Scouts is you can set goals and dreams. And you realize that you can plan. And one of the things that really stuck with me was one day we were planning an outdoor camp activity at a nearby park, and one of the things that we did was we planned for contingency. What happened if it rained? And, wow, what a new way of living life that you can plan for the unexpected.
Life isn't left for fate. And that really stuck with me that we had contingency plans. So later on, as I lived my life, there's an episode I write in Path to the Stars where we almost died because my parents had never changed the filter in the heater. And we had Carbon Monoxide poisoning. And had it not been for our dog licking my mother and barking and waking her up where she woke up and was able to drag us out of the house, we may have died.
And then later on our car, because we never serviced the cars, we were stranded in the hot Chihuahua desert with an infant, and we ran out of water. And I realized, thanks to Girl Scouts, it doesn't have to be that way. We can plan. We can have contingency planning. Don't plan on everything going right. You can also plan for what happens if things don't go right. And so, remembering the many times where cars kept breaking down, one day when I was in middle school I saw that there was an ad for women learning how to maintain their cars.
So I signed up for the class and I rode my bicycle to the garage and they asked me where my mother was. And I said, "Well, I'm here." And they asked me, "Do you even drive?" And I said, "No." And they said, "Okay." But they let me go with the other women and learned how to change oil. And then they were talking about that every car came with a manual. And I said, "Really?" And I said, "Where is it?" They said, "Usually it's in the glovebox."
And I remember riding my bike home and immediately going to the car. And sure enough, there was a pristine unopened manual. And in middle school, even before I learned how to drive, I put our cars on a repair schedule so that they wouldn't ever break down again.
One of the great things in Girl Scouts is they have these things called S'mores, which is a graham cracker with chocolate and marshmallow. And I'd never had one before. And I just finished eating it, and I was looking up at the stars in the sky. And Las Cruces was quite small back then so the night sky was just blanketed with stars. And my troop leader saw me, and she showed me that there's constellations in the sky. There's big dippers and little dippers.
And my parents had seen me looking at the stars many times, but they had never shown me that there were these constellations. And she remembered that I was really mesmerized by that. And later on, when we were earning badges, I was earning a cooking badge because that's what all my friends were doing, because I was a girl and I was doing what my friends were doing. But she encouraged me to earn a science badge at the same time.
And that's when I decided to make an Estes rocket. There were several steps in earning the badges. And I did all the steps, but the final step was not just making a rocket, but it had to launch. And so I did that. It was trial and error, and I finally got it to go up in the beautiful, blue New Mexico sky. And that just gave me so much confidence. But it also helped me see that, because I was earning my cooking badge at the same time, that you put ingredients together, or chemicals, you have to get them in the right sequence, and then you have to add heat the right way. And when you do that, you can have success.
And sometimes it can be trial and error, but you can keep at it and then you'll finally be successful. And that was really an important lesson. And I realized in elementary school I could do that. I could do science. It was just like cooking. So when every anyone said, "You're a girl, you can't do that." I thought "Eh, it's just like cooking. I can do science."
"I can do science and math – and change the oil in our cars"
Thanks to Girl Scout I had an aptitude for science and math, and our troop leader had really encouraged me to do a science badge. So at a young age, I realized I could do science. Because I failed the first few times, but in Girl Scouts that's okay, especially when you're learning something nontraditional. Sometimes you won't be good at it the first time. And I wasn't.
But I kept at it, and finally my rocket launched, which was great. But I got a real sense of "I can do this. I can do science and math." So I began taking science and math electives. And I decided to be an engineer. And my college counselor looked at me and saw that I was Latina, and she said, "Girls like you don't go to college." And I said, "Well, I'm going to college." And I told her I was gonna be an engineer. And she said, "Girls aren't engineers."
And I said, you know, that Girl Scout confidence, "I'm going to be an engineer." So I applied for all sorts of scholarships, and there was this one scholarship I applied for that didn't have a gender base on it, and so I just filled out my name. And I answered all the questions. And I remember that test being pretty tough. But I answered it.
Well, time went on and one day the principal called me out of class in high school. And he said there were these two men that wanted to interview me. And these men had come down from Albuquerque. And they were both engineers. And they told me I had done the best on that test, but I was a girl and they thought somebody had filled the form out for me. So they kept asking me, "Who filled the form out? Did you answer those questions yourself?" And one of the men said, "Show me that you've done anything mechanical in your life."
And I said, "I change the oil on our cars." And he scoffed at me. And he said, "Go detail by detail." And I went through every single step. And he said, "You just did that because you've seen your father do it." And I laughed. I said, "My father's never changed the oil in our cars." So at that point, they finally, obviously agreed because I ended up getting that very wonderful scholarship.
How my mother learned to advocate for herself
Girl Scouts, it really taught me so much about how to succeed in the United States and in America. And all my grandparents were from Mexico. My mom was born in Mexico. My dad was born in El Paso, and he had a lot of very traditional Mexican male ideas. So there was a lot of favoritism towards my brother just because he was a boy. When I wanted to something he got to do, they would say no. And I'd say, "Why not?" They'd say, "Well, because he's a boy."
So there was a lot of that that was just embedded in the culture. And my father also didn't want my mother to drive a car. He was happy just being the sole driver of a car. He didn't mind not having a phone in the house. But it was when my sister got sick, and my mother couldn't call for help, she couldn't get in a car right away and take my sister to the emergency room, that my mother realized her children's lives were in danger because of that.
And she stood up to my father and said, "I'm going to learn how to drive a car." And once she learned how to drive a car, she scoured neighborhoods, and she found a place in a place that the streets were paved where we could go to school and have more opportunities in life. And even when we moved, my mom still spoke Spanish. And her friends all spoke Spanish with her. But my troop leaders befriended my mother, and they helped her learn English.
They were housewives like my mother and so they helped her learn English. And when they were helping her learn English, they said, "You know, you've got your green card. You could become a U.S. citizen." And that was something my father hadn't really encouraged my mother to do. He was happy she just had a green card. But my mother went and practiced and learned and got her U.S. citizenship. And I'm so proud that when I went from Brownie to Junior Girl Scout, my mother flew up herself. And she became a U.S. citizen. And at that point, my father became very proud of her.
Part III: Sylvia Acevedo: Rocket Scientist!
Learning from failure
There's a lot of things in my book Path to the Stars, or Camino a las Estrellas, that I really talk about how I overcame things, and you know, some of the things were initially failures, things I didn't succeed at. And one of them was I had been first chair in percussion, and I'd had a lot of success with percussion and drums. And I had been making all-state and winning statewide competitions since I was in the ninth grade.
And when I was a senior, I was teaching other students how to prepare for the all-state competition so I felt more ready and prepared than ever. And I didn't make it. And I was devastated because all my friends made it. And I was humiliated. When all my friends went to all-state, I couldn't go to school. I was embarrassed because everybody would know I was band president, first chair. I didn't make it.
And instead, I said, "Gosh, I don't think music is gonna be it for me." And so I was looking through a college catalogue and I saw that there was Systems Engineering, Industrial Engineering, which is a combination of systems, and people and processes to make things more efficient. And I thought, "That sounds like something just for me." And instead of going to school, I asked my mom if I could take the days off, and I was gonna go to look for college opportunities. So my mom agreed.
And I think she knew I was embarrassed to go to school because I felt so humiliated. And at that point, I met the dean and he looked at me and said, "You know you have to like math and do well in math to be an engineer." And I said, "Well, I'm straight A's in math, and I'm top 10 in my high school." And he said, "Oh, okay." So then he talked to me and I thought, "You know, I could really do this."
So I wanted to make sure to include that in the book because it was a moment that engineering was really a great fit for me. And I'm glad that I had that failure because it opened up other opportunities for me. So you don't have to necessarily let failure define you and to keep you down. It's important to get up even when you have huge failures that can seem just like humiliation. I still got something that was even better for me out of it.
Getting to Stanford
I was really fortunate because there were some amazing teachers that I had, but in fourth grade I had this one teacher Mrs. Baldwin whose son had gone traveling around the world. And he had taken pictures of famous universities. And something I think that was pretty forward-thinking of her was she showed a class some of the pictures of the universities he'd taken pictures of. And I lived in the desert. And there was lots of brown to it.
And when the picture of Stanford University showed up and I saw the green lawns and I saw the beautiful red tile roof and the limestone, I just blurted out, "I want to go there." And I remember Mrs. Baldwin walking from her desk to my desk and she looked at me and she said, "That's one of the best universities in the United States, or maybe even the world." And then she looked at me and she said, "And you can go there". And at nine years old, fourth grade in Mrs. Baldwin's class I said, "I'm going to Stanford University."
And I think I had that Girl Scout courage and confidence that I set that goal. And I knew I needed to break it down into smaller goals.
When I was planning to go to college, I had been saving up money, and I had applied to schools all over the country. And I was so excited about that. I had been accepted to some pretty elite colleges. And right before it was time to select a college, my grandmother died, and she died far away, and there was no money to bury her. And so, we did what most Mexican families did, is we came together and who had money is I had my college fund.
And so I remember my parents and my dad going with me to the bank, and we waited for the bank to open and I pulled out all my money for college and I handed it to my father. And so at that point, I realized I was going to have to go to school in New Mexico. I wasn't going to be able to afford to go out-of-state. And I was grateful New Mexico State had the program that I wanted, which is in Industrial Engineering. And I got a four-year scholarship to that.
But I never lost hope of going to Stanford. And so I had kept up my grades. I kept putting that plan in place of what it would take to get to go to Stanford. And so I'm very grateful that after I graduated from college, I started a job at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, but I kept applying to go to Stanford. And I'm grateful that I was able to be selected. And I'm so proud of the fact that I did go to Stanford University, and I did graduate from there.
My first summer as a field test engineer
One of the great things about the great scholarship that I got, that very prestigious scholarship where those gentleman had grilled me, was that you got this work-study program in the summers. And they had not been prepared for a girl to be part of the program. So the first summer I was a field test engineer and they didn't even have a bathroom for me. So I get there and there's no bathroom. And my father and I had had a lot of friction, but we had a very bonding experience on the drive up to Albuquerque.
And he told me about working in a lab, and how challenging, and how sometimes people will tease you. And he said, "Never give in. Always be professional. Always be positive. Look for solutions." And so when I got there, and I realized there was no bathrooms, I remember thinking, "When has there been another time when I haven't had access to bathrooms?" And I remembered going hiking on an all-day hike with Girl Scouts.
And I remember our troop leader saying, "What do you need for an all-day hike?" And we thought, "We need water." "What else do you need?" "A hat." "What do you need?" "Good shoes." "You need food." She kept saying, "What else?" She said, "How do you plan to go to the bathroom?" And that stuck with me, and I remember thinking that. I thought "Okay, I've gotta plan." So I found out where the closest women's bathrooms were and I realized I needed to bring in a bike. So if I had to go in an emergency I could.
And I did limit my water intake. But after six weeks, because I wasn't a complainer, I was always positive, I was always on time, they saw that I was a really good worker, and I was invaluable to the team. So at that point, they finally agreed and they brought in a porta-potty. And it was a brand new porta-potty, white, and it said "Hers" on it. So that was a really important lesson, that sometimes as a woman you're going to be experiencing things for the first time.
And it may not be a very welcoming invitation that there's not even a bathroom for you, but don't let that hold you back. Just solve the problem and be persistent and resilient.
Working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Labs
I had this great opportunity to work at NASA Jet Propulsion Labs right when the Voyager 2 mission was flying by Jupiter and its moons, Io and Europa. And all this data was coming back. And all these images for the first time seeing Jupiter up close. It was such an exciting time. Right now we are used to seeing everything on our cell phone or mobile device, but back then they brought in televisions screens to the cafeteria and we would just be glued to the screens as we saw fresh images, close-up images of Jupiter and its moons flash on the screens. It was such an exciting time.
And I got to analyze so much data back then and work on algorithms. I also worked on another mission, and back then that mission was called the Solar Polar Solar Probe. Over time, they changed it to the Parker Solar Probe, which just recently launched. Now that Parker Solar Probe, we were doing some things like analyzing how do get close to the sun? We wanted to get to four million miles close to the sun. Right now we're about 93 million miles.
So it's like getting on a football field from one end zone all the way to the four yard line. I mean, you've got to be really close. And that means it's gonna be really hot, there's going to be a lot of solar wind, there's going to be a lot of radiation. You may have asteroids hit you. So how big can the space capsule be? What kind of instrumentation? We didn't even have the materials developed that could withstand the heat at that time.
So it was a project which I realized was huge, big thinking. And I knew it was gonna take not just years, but decades, to come to fruition. And that was when my Stanford acceptance came in. And I remember thinking "Gosh, I've had an opportunity to work on the Voyager 2, on Solar Probe, just getting my dream come true to go to Stanford." And that's when I went to Stanford.
Ensuring that girls have access to STEM opportunities
It's so important, Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, STEM for kids because right now the world is being remade. It's kind of like when we went from the agrarian age to the industrial age. We're now going from the industrial age to the age of data. And everything from fashion to anything, insurance, the way we farm, everything is being touched by data. And women make up half of the population so we need to be able to have our voices at the table and be designers, creators, inventors, the entrepreneurs.
And we need to have a skillset to do that. And I know at Girl Scouts we are really making sure that girls have the skills in cybersecurity, and coding and programming, thinking like an engineer, and just also those important skills of confidence building, of courage, knowing how to work with others, those project management skills. So it's very important that girls get that, and especially in a girl-only environment where you're allowed to try and fail and try and fail.
And if you're not good at something the first time, you keep at it until you really develop the aptitude to be good at that.
Why kids need to see themselves represented in the world around them
The other thing about what's happening with the world being remade around technology is that if there aren't people's different voices, your culture gets left out of what you see. So the content that's being created doesn't reflect who you are. And that is really something that we need to say "That's not appropriate."
I know that on photo software, the shorter my hair is, the more pop-up images similar to me to be male. And I know that's what it is. That means somebody has coded "short hair = male". So those are little cultural things and little cultural norms. But if you think about that extrapolated to many different thing, you say, "Wait a minute. Where am I being represented in this?" So we need to make sure that all children of all heritage types, all cultural types, have the ability to have the skills, to have their voice, to have who they are represented in the world that's being created around them.
My favorite places to star gaze
My favorite place to look at the stars is anywhere where there's not a lot of light. So it's usually in a desert, on a mountain top or out in the ocean. I love that because I love going and picking up an app and you can see where the different constellations are, and then even then being able to find, oh, what planet is shining brightly these days? I love going to the ocean for that, but I also just love the desert and mountaintops for the ability to look at the stars.
Part IV: What Girl Scouts Offers Young Women Today
Learning how to lead
In Girl Scouts, one of the things that you learn even as a young Daisy, it's a really important skill because at Girl Scouts we let girls lead. And what that means if you help girls organize themselves. So they get to organize. What material do you need? What resources? Who does what? What are you gonna get done? What kind of deadlines do you have? Those seem like little skills, but girls don't get taught that skill in school.
They only really are taught that in Girl Scouts. And that's probably no surprise why so many women leaders were Girl Scouts because you learn how to lead. You learn how to organize. You learn how to do teamwork and collaboration at a very early age. So it's really surprising to me. I've had so many women tell me that one of the secrets to their success was, yes, selling cookies, but the other was the project management that they learned at Girl Scouts.
Whether you're a stay-at-home mom or a corporate executive, those key skills of project management: defining the resources that you need, what are the deadlines, who are you working with, how do you collaborate with others. All those skills are invaluable life skills that really propel you forward. And I think that's one of the reasons we have so many amazing alumni that have accomplished so many great things. And women who are Girl Scouts tend to have higher levels of academic achievement, say they're happier in their lives, and tend to earn more money.
Valuing girls' voices
It's so important for girls to be able to feel like they know what to do to create positive change in the world about the values that they care most about. It is so important that the things that matter to them, and who they are and how they form friendships, that those are not left to the sidelines, but that that's part of how the world is created. The way women form friendships, the way women collaborate and communicate, that should be included as the norm, not a separate thing.
And we want to make sure that girls have the skills, the talent, that they're the marketers, they're the lawyers, they're the judges, they're the business people who are defining what the policies are in a way that is inclusive of their voices, about the way they consider safety online, about how they consider their personal safety and their health around their own body that they get to make the rules defining that.
Girls are changing the world
One of the great things that we're looking at in Girl Scouts, but what I also know when you're reaching families, is really looking at what you have in common. And really what we know is every parent wants the best for their family. And I know at Girl Scouts we know we are the best, we're the experts at how girls learn and lead. So we know we can develop the girls' potential to be their very best. And so we want to make sure that parents understand that because that is the common ground that we share.
And everyone wants hope for their children to be better than what they're experiencing today. And we share in that hope, but even better than that, we teach the girls the important life skills of how to change and shape the world that they live in. And I'm just so proud of that.
We have girls in high school this year who earned their Gold Award Project, and they have changed laws in states. One high schooler changed the law to end child marriage in New Hampshire. Another girl in Kansas, she has relatives, her uncle was developmentally disabled, and she realized he didn't get very many resources from the state. She got the law changed in Kansas to increase developmentally disabled adults' support.
Other girls in Colorado and Oregon changed the laws around second-hand smoke. And a young Girl Scout in high school, she got Starbucks to quit making plastic straws because of how it was damaging the ocean. We teach girls how to take on really big projects because their voices can be heard.
Join the Girl Scouts!
You know, for parents, if you want to give your daughter an advantage, which is why you came to the United States, make sure she becomes a Girl Scout. And moms and dads: please get involved in Girl Scouts too.
"Camino a las estrellas": Inspiración para las familias
Es tan importante que los padres aprenden con sus hijos y también a leer con sus hijos. Y para mi, te doy un consejo: yo escribí este libro Camino a las estrellas en inglés y también en español para que ustedes puedan leer el libro con su familia.
Sylvia Acevedo reads an excerpt from Path to the Stars
Hi, I'm Sylvia Acevedo and I'm gonna be reading from my book Path to the Stars (Camino a las estrellas): My Journey from Girl Scouts to Rocket Scientist.
"My first summer involved field testing rockets. They never have a woman engineer so they didn't even have a bathroom for women in the test labs. I had to use the restrooms in the building where the secretaries worked so I had to plan my breaks accordingly.
I brought in a bicycle so that I could make it to that building very quickly. I had to stay organized. Finally, they gave me my own portable bathroom complete with a sign that simply said ‘Hers.' I wasn't surprised either when it turned out that there were no engineer coveralls that fit me. These were large heavy garments designed for men, big men. I used duct tape to adjust the pants and arms on my coverall and to make the gloves stay on my hand.
The lab had to special order me a pair of redwing steel-toed boots like the other engineers wore because the shoes didn't come in women's sizes.
I was a little surprised to find that none of this bothered me. There were obstacles to overcome, but they had nothing to do with the work of engineering, which I loved. After all, I'd flown Estes model rockets for my Girl Scouts science badge. Now I got to work on the real thing. Finding a way to make the coverall fit was just a small problem to be solved so I could get back to being an engineer. In my second summer, I was put to work designing and drawing. Nowadays, engineers do this on the computer.
But back then, we had to draw our models by hand. During my third summer, I worked in the laboratory. And during my fourth year, I learned about the human factors involved in engineering. My analysis of tracking radioactive shipments in the United States was included in a presentation to Congress. After I graduated college, my boss wrote a beautiful note to my parents thanking them for doing such a good job raising me.
The note went on to say that because of young people like me he had confidence in the future because he knew the world would be in good hands. My parents were proud of me, but by now I knew it was more important that I was proud myself."