She came to the U.S. with only $300 and worked housekeeping jobs to pay for school. Now she's a flight director for NASA's Mars Perseverance.
When NASA's Perseverance rover successfully landed on Mars last week, aerospace engineer Diana Trujillo, who is a flight director on the mission, said in an interview with CBS News that it took her some time to process that it had arrived on the red planet.
"I was very much on the mindset of 'What's happening?'" she said. Then as pictures and videos from Perseverance started to beam back, it became real.
"Are we safe? I think that watching the image was when I actually processed that we had actually landed," she added.
The landing only marked the beginning of Perseverance's stop on Mars, but playing a leadership role in the historic mission to find life there was decades in the making for Trujillo. Her dreams of reaching space and wanting to understand the universe came as a young person in Cali, Colombia. Her parents were divorcing and as a 17-year-old, she decided to go to the United States, arriving with only $300 and not speaking any English. She worked housekeeping jobs to pay for her studies and later joined NASA in 2007.
Trujillo is now part of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and worked on the team that created the robotic arm that will collect rock samples on Mars. "Understanding if we're alone in the universe is the ultimate question," she said. "I hope that within the one year of surface operations on Mars, we can answer that question soon."
She said her experience early on as an immigrant motivates her to give her best always, especially when coming from a country that had limited opportunities.
"I saw everything coming my way as an opportunity," she said. "I didn't see it as, 'I can't believe I'm doing this job at night,' or 'I can't believe that I'm cleaning. I can't believe that I'm cleaning a bathroom right now.' It was just more like, 'I'm glad that I have a job and I can buy food and and have a house to sleep.' And so, I think that all of those things make me, and even today, helps me see life differently. I see it more as every instant I need to be present because every instance matters."
Part of the reason she wanted to get into the space field was to prove some family members wrong.
"I wanted my — especially the males of my own family — to recognize that women add value," she said, adding, "it came from wanting to prove to them that we matter."
However, her motivations would later evolve as a college student. She remembered being on the line to declare her major at the University of Florida and not knowing what she wanted to do. When Trujillo reached the dean, she saw a magazine that had images of female astronauts, a space shuttle and Earth — and that was when she picked aerospace engineering as her major. She also noticed the line was filled with people who didn't speak Spanish nor looked Hispanic, and she was one of the few women on the queue.
"It was very petrifying because you're doing this ginormously long line and every step of the way, you're [thinking] like, 'You shouldn't be here ... why are you here,'" she said.
Throughout her career, a similar theme followed: She'd be one of the few Latinas working in science. Now, she knows whenever she's working as one of the surface flight directors for Perseverance, she's representing more than just herself.
"I know I'm not walking in there alone," she said. "I'm walking in there and every single thing that I do, I'm representing my country, my culture, my heritage, my people, and I have to give my best every single time."
"I get to elevate and amplify my culture and all the countries that speak Spanish by sending a message to everybody that we're here, we're present," she added.
According to the Student Research Foundation, Hispanics hold only 8% of the STEM workforce — of which Hispanic women only comprise 2%. Trujillo believes the way to break the glass ceiling is to have more role models. That influenced her decision to be host of NASA's first-ever Spanish language broadcast for a planetary landing last Thursday. The show was called "Juntos perseveramos," or "Together we persevere," and it garnered more than 2.5 million views on YouTube. She's even gotten the attention of fellow countrywoman and global music star Shakira.
"The more hers there are, the more engineers and scientists that are Latin are out there, the more chances we have for those kids to have la chispa, where they say, 'I want to be that," she said.
She believes more visibility of Latinos in STEM will allow families to encourage younger members to follow in those steps, rather than stereotypical roles men and women have been told to follow.
"The abuelas, the moms or dads, the uncles, los primos, like everyone has to see this," she said. "And they have to see a woman in there, too. So, that they can turn around to the younger generation and say she can do it, you can do it."
Trujillo hopes to one day reach space, but she feels a special calling in helping bring more women in science and engineering.
"Life has always given me the opportunities that are the right ones for me, so we'll see what comes next," she said.
for more features.