Las Cruces Sun-News, February 2, 2018
LAS CRUCES – A Las Cruces mechanical engineer was crowned Miss New Mexico USA in a statewide pageant held recently at Oñate High School. And she hopes to use the role to inspire children, especially girls, to become engineers and scientists.
Kristen Leyva, 23, was born and raised in Las Cruces, attending Desert Hills Elementary, Camino Real Middle School and Oñate High. Her mother was a single parent who became a mechanical engineer, and, in doing so, inspired her daughter to pursue the same career.
Leyva recalls having a “persistent curiosity” as a child that got her into trouble once when she dismantled the family computer in hopes of finding out how it worked.
Her mother worked as an engineer for NASA on White Sands Missile Range. And, recognizing her daughter’s interest in science, opted to take her to work on an important day: the launch of a crew vehicle for the International Space Station. Leyva said she saw her mom as a “rock star” that day and wanted to be like her.
After graduating from high school in 2012, she opted to attend New Mexico State University, where her mother had attended, because she thought it was a high quality program. And, having a close bond with her mother and older sister, she wanted to stay close to home.
A difficult loss
Leyva’s mother, Jo Leyva, had sometimes taken her daughters to the NMSU campus when she didn’t have a babysitter. They’d stay in a nearby classroom while their mom’s class took place. Kristen Leyva said it was strange returning to the same buildings years later, this time as the student.
Kristen Leyva said the mechanical engineering program was challenging. But another challenge arose along the way: Her mother, Jo Leyva, began a battle with colon cancer. In her junior and senior years, Kristen Leyva helped to care for her mom, in addition to juggling school and work.
Unfortunately, Jo Leyva died two months shy of her daughter’s graduation from NMSU in December 2016. It was a difficult loss, and for months after, Kristen Leyva said she avoided reading her mom’s obituary. When she finally did read it, she noticed that one of the highlights was her mother’s interest in promoting the field of engineering among young students. In honor of her mom, Kristen Leyva decided to take on the same mantle.
“I wanted to be the same kind of role model she was for me,” Kristen Leyva said.
Soon, Kristen Leyva had developed the #JustOne program, a reference to the idea that it takes just one role model or mentor to inspire a student to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or math — STEM. Though the project took a while to get off the ground, Kristen Leyva began visiting New Mexico classrooms to talk about STEM. She works with each teacher to develop the presentation and tie it into what students are learning. She doesn’t charge schools for the presentations or any materials she uses. Sometimes she has carried out science experiments.