My name is Diana Mendoza, and I am the next generation of this country’s great architects, engineers and designers.

At 17, I am heading into my junior year at George Westinghouse College Prep, a public high school on Chicago’s West Side for high-achieving students. I’m also my third year into an engineering scholars program that has changed my life and helped me realize my true passion and potential in STEM careers, especially in the fields of construction, architecture and design.

And yes — I’m a young woman.

I was selected to take part in a multi-year scholars program called the Paschen Scholars via a partnership my school has with F.H. Paschen, one of Chicago’s most prolific construction companies, which since 2015 has offered 17 students at my school the opportunity to take part in real projects throughout the city, and get exposure to nearly every aspect of the industry.

And while today I feel more confident than ever about being a part of this typically male-dominated industry, I wasn’t always so sure that as a young woman this would be a feasible career path for me.

I initially applied to the Paschen Scholars program because I wanted a shot at something bigger than myself.

I drew my hunger for creativity and getting messy from my dad, who is both a construction and carpenter worker and a mechanic. The thing is, his skills don’t stay at the garage door or cease after he leaves his job — they follow him home and he uses those skills to provide and teach us what we need to do to one day be as resourceful in our own home.

At first, I was reluctant to apply to the program. I almost ruled myself out of even being considered for the opportunity because I thought I was not good enough, or that because I hadn’t yet “found myself” and meticulously figured out my future that they weren’t going to accept me.

But they did.

The program leaders took me out of my comfort zone and submersed me into the real world. They took us to real job sites where they are working and showed us what it takes to make space for new runways at O’Hare International Airport and how to build a pedestrian bridge over Lake Shore Drive. They showed us the planning and creativity it takes to modernize our city’s public transportation system, and challenged us to design and create our own bus shelters. Ask anyone and they will tell you that I’ll be the first one asking what everything on site is, because I realize now that what I do in this program is the greatest opportunity in my life.

What’s more: four of the six newest scholars are all young women — the first class of Paschen Scholars where girls outnumber their male counterparts.

I can’t express my gratitude for the people who put this program together — and that they saw the potential in me to be great, even when I did not yet see it in myself. Often, I still cannot believe it.

Ultimately, I want to be someone I’m proud of. It’s everyone’s dream to wake up and be happy to go to work and live their life to the fullest.

And I feel I have a chance.

To other young women who want to pursue STEM careers in engineering: Let the people that support you be there, and if they aren’t, then be your own cheerleader and head coach. Remind yourself what you want to do, who you want to be and just go for it. Take the leap of faith and move on — don’t be scared of good opportunities.

Trying will pay off in one form or another. You have to fight for what you want and be committed to sticking by who you are. Do not be afraid of the world, or discovering yourself.

Photo of Diana Mendoza on-site at O’Hare International Airport, credit to Brian Fritz Photography