By Sherry DiBari

Vanessa Alvarado spent most of her childhood focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

"I think I first wanted to be an engineer when I was nine or 10," she said.

In May, Alvarado will graduate from Old Dominion University with a double major in mechanical engineering and physics. However, she had a few twists and turns in her educational journey.

In elementary school, she was bused to a special STEM program near her home in Balch Springs, Texas, a suburb of Dallas.

"We did a lot of projects and a lot of thinking and a lot of research and a lot of brainstorming," Alvarado said. "And we were basically told, this is what engineers do - thinking about a problem and finding a creative solution.

"That kind of stuck with me."

At 16, she was accepted to the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, an early college entrance residential program for gifted high school students.

Students are also enrolled at the University of North Texas.

"I don't think I was really ready to be in a collegiate environment yet," she said. "It was definitely a culture shock."

Alvarado ended up leaving the program.

"It's very, very strict with GPAs. And I was 1,000th of a point below where I needed to be," she said. "It was honestly heartbreaking."

After living independently as a college student, Alvarado didn't want to go back to her old high school. Instead, she got her GED.

"That was definitely a difficult decision," she said. "I think more so for my mom. She really wanted me to finish high school. Education has always been something that she's very passionate about."

At 19, Alvarado joined the Navy and wound up on the USS Forrest Sherman, which is based in Norfolk. She and her wife have been here since 2015.

The military finally provided the direct path to her engineering dream.

"I knew we didn't have the money to pay for school outright," she said. "Taking the route of joining the military and earning my education made me really appreciate the kinds of opportunities it gives you," she said.

When her Navy contract ended, Alvarado enrolled at ODU, a place she had driven by every day on her way to work.

She started out as a mechanical engineering major, then added physics for another major.

"People ask me a lot why I would do that to myself?" she said. "All I can say is really enjoy my physics classes."

Surrounded by other students in the STEM fields, Alvarado found her niche.

She helped found and serves as vice president of Phi Sigma Rho, a social sorority for women in engineering and engineering technology.

"It has definitely helped me find a community of people who are all struggling the same way that I am," she said.

Alvarado feels that many young girls are discouraged from going into STEM fields by teachers.

"I've heard lots of stories of girls who were 9 years old, like in fourth grade, and their teacher said, 'you can't do math,'" Alvarado said. "Are you kidding me? All it takes is consistent encouragement.

"We should be able to follow our passions as passionately as any man would. We shouldn't have to overcome 300 extra roadblocks just to get to the same place."

Alvarado will be providing her own consistent encouragement soon; she has a summer position working with children at Black Rocket, a technical camp for coding and programming.

At ODU, Alvarado leaves behind an example for STEM enthusiasts who veer a little from the direct path.

"As a Navy veteran, Vanessa represents the best of our students," said Tony Dean, associate professor and assistant dean for research at the Batten College of Engineering and Technology.

"She is the future of engineering."

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