Katya Echazarreta Shares What's the Most Impactful Thing She's Learned About the Human Spirit
Kindness can be revoluntionary. Sometimes, all you really need to pursue and achieve your dreams is a gentle nudge and encouraging word.
All around Chica Boss, electrical engineer, Science Show host, and speaker Katya Echazarreta understands just how important it is to encourage the next generation of Latino and Hispanic students to reach for the stars.
That's why she's partnered up with the McDonald's HACER Scholarship Program to help bring further awareness to the possibilities students have. The HACER Scholarship, who's last day for application submissions is on February 6, offers scholarship to up 30 Latino and Hispanic students nationwide totaling up to $100,000.
Echazarreta, the first Mexican-born woman in space, tells People Chica, "So the McDonald's HACER® National Scholarship is a very special scholarship because it is only open to students that have at least one Hispanic or Latino parent. Unlike many other national scholarships which are open to everyone in the country, this scholarship was designed specifically for them. Something else that I love about it is that the minimum GPA is 2.8."
In an exclusive interview with People Chica, Echazarreta describes what it's been like to partner with the McDonald's HACER Scholarship Program as well as the important lessons she's learned along the way.
Giving back has been one of the many talking points you've shared in the past regarding the work that you do. You had a virtual mentorship session on January 24 as part of the McDonald's HACER® National Scholarship Program. What were you most excited about for this session?
What [I was] most excited about [was] sharing not only my story with the students but also hearing from the students. I read a book by a philosopher named Paolo Freire, which says that in any relationship, when it comes to mentorship [or] when it comes to maybe you being a supervisor at a job or you being a teacher at a school, it's important to recognize that, yes, you are teaching these individuals something and you're sharing your experiences about something, but they are also teaching us something as well, and they are sharing and opening up to us as well.
So it is definitely a relationship here where we can both learn from each other. And during the sessions that we've been doing at the different schools, I have come away with so much strength from these students and so much also advice about how they are living their life and how they're getting through their difficult situations. So it's been very, very beautiful to live through these mentorship sessions.
What is something that you've learned about yourself by doing these sessions and your work with the McDonald's HACER® National Scholarship Program?
It's been so beautiful to be able to share my story with these students. And I think that it's also been very important for me in being able to process everything that I personally went through because I went through some of these very difficult things when I was their age. I remember a couple [of] days ago I was at my mom's house in Mexico and there was a photo [on] her wall of all of my siblings hugging her. This was taken a couple of days before my life changed forever.
When we had to leave our home, we had to leave everything, all of our possessions and everything really that we knew of and that we grew up with. I remember looking at that photo and looking at that girl, and she just looked so young. I mean, I was 18 years old and I just started crying because I remembered everything I had to do, everything she had to do.
Looking at me now, as an adult, and looking at her and knowing that she's the one that did it. She's the one that lived through that and had the strength to live through that. Then being able to see the faces of these young people, and seeing myself in them has been very emotional for both of us.
Through some of these mentorship sessions, it has not been uncommon for both of us to end up crying because we see ourselves as reflections of the past and the future that they could have.
What has been probably the most surprising element you've learned about the human spirit since embarking on this journey with McDonald's?
The most beautiful thing for me to see are the young mothers that I have met because I know that what I had to live through was difficult and it was hard, and I did have to take care of my siblings, but they were grown. They could in some way also take care of themselves and help me in taking care of them. But I have met through some of these mentorship sessions with McDonald's, some young mothers that are 18 years old, 19 years old, and they have very, very, very little kids and they're working at the same time and they're still going to school for their degree at the same time.
And when I see that, I remember my mom because my mom had my sister when she was 17 years old. My sister got very sick—she got meningitis when she was a year old. The doctors said that she wasn't going to survive. So I'm able to see these mothers and I'm able to see how hard they're working for their kids and how hard they're working for their families.
Truthfully, there's really not much I can do for them other than [listen] to them and sitting there and cry with them and letting them just let everything out, because I know that it's going to continue to be very difficult. But I also know that they're not going to stop. I can see it in their eyes as they break down, that it is hard, that they're exhausted, that they wish life could have been different for them, but it's not—and they're going to keep going.
They're going to make it. They're going to get to that finish line and they're going to change their lives for their children and seeing that is always going to continue to give me strength.
The McDonald's HACER® National Scholarship Program wants to help Latino and Hispanic students achieve their dreams and reach their fullest potential. What is something you'd love for applicants to know about this opportunity that they may not already know?
So the McDonald's HACER® National Scholarship is a very special scholarship because it is only open to students that have at least one Hispanic or Latino parent. Unlike many other national scholarships which are open to everyone in the country, this scholarship was designed specifically for them. Something else that I love about it is that the minimum GPA is 2.8. [For] so many other scholarships [...] you have to be a perfect student, [a] perfect individual—but this comes from privilege.
This comes from going to some of the best schools in the country. This comes from going to schools that have some of the best classes and best teachers in the country that have funding and resources—that have tutoring services. This comes to students that maybe have parents that have decent salaries and are able to get them the SAT prep and the college essay prep and everything necessary for them to succeed.
And this scholarship understands that the community that they're trying to help and go after does not have those privileges. So that is something that I really, really want students to know that this was designed for you. This was designed for your situation or the struggles that you are facing, and I really want to emphasize that if you do not apply out of fear of rejection, then you are ensuring that rejection. You're making sure that you don't get it by not giving it a shot. All of us who have gotten a scholarship in our lifetime have felt that we didn't deserve it.
We have all felt that question, "Why me? Why would they choose me out of all of the students in the country? Why did they choose me?" It is a very common question. But I wrote I really want students to instead ask, "Why not me? Why shouldn't I get it? Why shouldn't I get this opportunity?" And please, please do yourself a favor and apply. The deadline is February 6th and you can apply at McDonalds.com/hacer.
What is something you tell young a Katya about the road she would embark on? What is something you'd tell a more mature version of yourself about the choices that she's made?
I think something I would tell a young me is "thank you," because I think sometimes when we look at children, it's very easy to dismiss them and their opinions, and it's very easy for grown-ups to think that they just simply don't understand. I see it happen all too often where a lot of adults, a lot of parents and teachers lie to their children to try to protect them from certain situations, or they think that they're not going to understand.
But the reality is actually very different. They are sensing it, they are feeling it. They know something's wrong. And it just leads to a lot of confusion because they just are not being told the truth about what's going on, but they can still feel it. And as a child, that was very much my situation. I was always after the truth. And I was very, very resilient and very direct when it came to this.
I would always go to my mom and I would ask her a million and a half questions until I finally got the truth out of her. Because I did understand and because I knew, even at that age, what it was that I wanted.
I think something I would tell an older version of myself is that she can relax now. What we've done is enough. I definitely have the type of personality to feel like I need to just keep going and keep going and keep going. But I've also lived a few months in a community that had primarily older and retired individuals, and they all say the same thing.
They all say that when you're at that point in your life, you're not thinking back, "Oh, it is so great that I missed my son's birthday to go to that meeting. It is so great that I missed that vacation to put in extra hours at work." They're not thinking about any of that. And so I definitely would want an older version of myself to know that eventually there will come a point where it's okay to just sit back, enjoy the work that I've done, and just relax and enjoy the world for the rest of my life.