You’ll usually catch her at work in the engineering building’s innovation lab with a look of sheer concentration on her face as she tinkers with electronic circuit boards or operates complicated machinery, such as laser cutters and 3-D printers.
At other times, you’ll find her helping other engineering students with their projects, or excitedly showing young kids 3-D-printed bionic arms she volunteered her time to help develop with Limbitless Solutions, a nonprofit organization based at UCF that creates low-cost bionic arms for children in need.
Carmen Henriquez is an electrical engineering student at UCF in her senior year who will be graduating in December 2016. She comes from a humble background, having grown up in Honduras with parents that she says “worked really hard to make sure [she] went to school in Honduras” so that she could attend an American college.
However, her humble roots have had no effect on her ambition, which she proudly says is to “make medical devices for kids” by using her “knowledge from electrical engineering in the medical industry.”
It is an aspiration she is already accomplishing by volunteering the little time she has between her work shifts at the innovation lab, studying for school exams, and working as the lead electronics team developer for Limbitless Solutions. How she manages to achieve it all is something that one of her best friends, Mery Fernandez, a senior biomedical science major at UCF who has known Henriquez for four years, admires Henriquez for. Fernandez says she also admires Henriquez for how independent, positive and self-driven she is.
“I think for only being in this country for six years, she has managed to accomplish amazing things,” Fernandez said in a November 2015 interview.
Henriquez actually wanted to be a doctor before, the result of her parents’ insistence, but a biology course she took once quickly changed her mind. After helping her stepdad, an electrician, with his work one day, she realized she genuinely enjoyed it.
She then looked into engineering as a potential profession and has never looked back, despite the comments she sometimes receives from old people, and the intimidating statistics regarding the male-to-female ratio of professional engineers.
For example, according to a 2012 report from the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, a mere “14 percent of engineers in the workforce are women” — a number that universities nationwide have been struggling to increase with STEM outreach programs. A 2014-15 diversity report from UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science stated that only 15.6 percent of undergraduates enrolled in CECS are female. This is a slight increase from the 2013-14 academic year, however, which was reported to be 14.6 percent.
Nonetheless, the daunting statistics just add further motivation for Henriquez, who feels the need to prove herself due to the old stereotype that females and engineering degrees don’t mix. Henriquez has never had anyone try to talk her out of it, but often gets surprised reactions when she informs people she is studying electrical engineering.
“Sometimes people say the weirdest comments — mostly old people. Younger people are, you know, we’re used to different things, right? We have a more open mind, but older people sometimes get really surprised by it,” Henriquez said in a November 2015 interview. “Like I said before, I went to buy flowers once for my mom, and this lady was like ‘oh my god,’ but in Spanish, ‘oh my god, but that’s for boys. Why are you doing that?’ And I was like, ‘It’s not for boys! What does that even mean? Why is it for boys?’”
The weird comments and societal attitudes surrounding women in engineering have not discouraged Henriquez in the least, but she says dealing with those attitudes is the most challenging part of being a female engineer. She also suspects the historical perception and media-driven emphasis of engineering and computer science being a career more suitable for males might contribute to the low numbers of women in it.
“That’s definitely the hardest part. Dealing with the idea that guys are better at engineering, and that that’s why there are no girls in engineering,” Henriquez said in a November 2015 interview. “But that’s not the reason why, it’s a societal thing, you know? When programming came out, computer science was dominated by women. And then, when the computers came out, all the advertisements for computers just had men. It was men by their computers and girls jumping by the pool, while men were programming, but the field was dominated by girls.”
Whatever the cause for the nation’s low percentage of women in engineering might be, Henriquez expressly refuses to feed into the stereotypes. She doesn’t think the odds are against her, her future goals, or any women who aspire to become an engineer because there’s always a way to solve any problem in her view.
Whether it’s an electronic circuit board that refuses to cooperate or a child in need of a bionic arm that can react to electrical muscle impulses, Henriquez is positive there is a way to fix it — a manner of thinking she might have developed from her parents.
“My stepdad is the kind of person that knows how to do everything and so is my mom,” Henriquez said. “If they don’t, they'll figure it out. That's pretty much how I feel about being an engineer. There's always a way, I just have to figure it out.”
Gabby Baquero is the News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @Gabby_Baquero or email her at MariaB@centralfloridafuture.com