Since 1992, the HACU National Internship Program (HNIP) has been connecting Hispanic college students with federal agencies and private corporations across the United States. The nation’s largest Hispanic college internship program, HNIP has changed the lives of more than 5,000 students, including Elizabeth Hernandez, a sophomore at Oxnard College majoring in mechanical engineering. With the help of HNIP, she is realizing her dream of working in the mechanical engineering field. Read more about Elizabeth’s story below.
Did you always know you wanted to go to college?
I love studying, so college has always been a dream of mine—especially since neither of my parents attended college. But I grew up in Mexico, where there aren’t as many possibilities for students like me. Five years ago, my family decided to move to the United States—the land of opportunity. That is when I knew that my dream of going to college would finally come true.
What factors did you consider when choosing a school and a major?
Oxnard College was an easy choice for me. I liked the idea of attending a community college with small class sizes and friendly people. Oxnard’s transfer program would allow me to earn my associate degree and eventually transfer to a larger school like the University of California, Berkeley or California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
How did you learn about HACU and HNIP?
My friend approached me and told me about the program. At the time, I didn’t even know what an internship was! I sent in my application, and to my surprise, I was accepted. I called my HACU representative, who told me that my eight-week internship would be at the Center for Adaptive Optics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. My internship coordinator arranged everything for me—travel, housing, and even meals. All I had to do was pack my bags!
Describe your HNIP internship.
The Center for Adaptive Optics is a science and technology center funded by the National Science Foundation. The center develops technology that removes the blurring images caused by distortions in optical systems. This may sound complicated, but it is actually very simple. When we look at an image in space, it seems blurry because there are waves that disturb the image. The Center for Adaptive Optics has developed a mirror that refracts the waves and fixes the images. Not only is this technology being used in astronomy but also in retinal imaging to improve vision.
My first week at the center, I was given an orientation with security information and classes. Then, I was assigned to the mechanical group, who gave me my project. During my eight-week internship, my assignment was to design a high vacuum motor that produced nanolaminates, which are very important components in every refraction mirror.
My supervisor and principal investigator were always there to answer questions and give suggestions, but it was my responsibility to design the motor, order the materials, assemble the parts, and test the motor once it was assembled. When I was waiting for materials to come in, I also had the opportunity to help the mechanical engineers and their interns with their projects, such as the vacuum in which my motor would be placed. When the time arrived for me to test my motor, I was very nervous. I placed it in the vacuum, turned it on, and it worked! The feeling of accomplishment was indescribable.
How has HNIP helped you to achieve your goals?
My internship confirmed the fact that a career in mechanical engineering is right for me. It was such a special experience. Not only did I gain confidence in my skills, but I also gained confidence in myself as a person. Both of these things will help me in my future career.
What are your thoughts about HNIP and about HACU in general?
Mechanical engineering is a male-dominated field, so I am a minority in gender and ethnicity. Without HACU and HNIP, I may have never had the confidence to pursue such a challenging career goal. I am so grateful for the opportunities HACU has provided for me. I keep in contact with my HACU representative and tell him what I’m doing. He is so encouraging and willing to help me. My future is brighter than I ever imagined, and I owe a lot to HACU.
What are your plans for the future?
I will continue studying mechanical engineering at Oxnard and earn my associate degree, then I’d like to transfer to UC Berkeley or California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, to complete my undergraduate degree. After that, I want to get my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.
Do you have any advice for Hispanic students who are thinking about attending college and participating in HNIP?
Follow your goals, don’t be scared, and don’t quit. Trying doesn’t hurt. Hispanics have many opportunities for scholarships, internships, and jobs. If you don’t believe me, contact your HACU representative and see for yourself!
To learn more about how HNIP can help you reach your goals, call (202) 467-0893 or visit www.hnip.net.