WAUKESHA, Wis. — Zaida Hernandez-Irisson uses her engineering degree every day. She’s a Sales Engineer Manager for Generac, a Fortune 500 company based in Waukesha.

“I always wanted to be an engineer,” Zaida said.

The first-generation college student is also a minority.

“Being the first person in my family to go to college, I had that emotional support,” she recalled. “I still had to find the means to pay for college.”

While pursuing a dual engineering degree at Gateway Technical College, the Hispanic woman worked full-time to put herself through school.

“I was going to work, going back to school, and then going back to work later just to make ends meet for me to get through my education,” Zaida said.

Upon hearing about a new grant her alma mater just received to help women and minorities pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, Zaida was thrilled.

“This opportunity is something very empowering and I feel that an educated community is a strong community,” she said. “We need that within our minority communities right now.”

SC Johnson, based in Racine, has donated $5.5 million to Gateway Technical College. The school can award 18 scholarships annually over the next decade, for women and students of color. It provides them $7,500 to cover four years of tuition, books and supplies. After getting their two-year degree, the students move on to either Carthage College, MSOE, or Concordia for the Bachelors.

The partnering colleges will match that $7,500.

The most recent data from UC San Diego shows in 2020, only one in four jobs in the STEM fields are held by women.  National Girls Collaborative Project reports Black and Latina women represent only one out of 20 employed scientists and engineers.

“It’s very hard and it’s a struggle that you really can’t explain unless you’ve actually been there,” said Zina Haywood, Provost at Gateway Tech.

Before switching to education, Zina pursued an engineering degree as well.  These statistics affect her deeply too, being a Black woman.

“People want to become what they see and if you don’t see someone who looks like you in a particular field, you don’t think about the field because it’s not around you,” she said. “If you’re a first-generation student, you may not even know anyone who’s in these fields.”

The college’s student body is about half women and half men, Zina said. 42% are students of color. Throughout Gateway’s seven STEM programs, only 35% are minorities and just 14% are women.

As a successful engineer, Zaida hopes her story will now be one of many, thanks to this grant and the awareness it promotes.

“I’m able to turn around and have a position that allows me financial stability for myself and for my family,” she said. “It’s really rewarding.”