A childhood filled with domestic violence, poverty and constant hardships is the story of too many children in Latin America and The Caribbean. It was also Sandra A Cauffman’s story. What was unusual was that her mother always thought that her daughter’s impossible dreams were not mere childhood fantasies, but the path to her happiness.
On July 20, 1969, in a neighbor’s house in San José of Costa Rica, Sandra watched on a black and white television when the Apollo 11 reached the Moon. At that time she became fascinated with space. On the way home, on a starry night, she looked at the Moon and told her mom that she also wanted to go there. Her mother could have replied saying she was way in over her head or that it was an impossible dream. Instead, she told her that the world goes around and around and that, if she were a good student and worked hard, someday, somehow she could reach the Moon.
And the truth is that the world would have to really change for Sandra’s dream to become true. She was born in a humble family and abandoned by an abusive father. But she had a secret weapon, a woman, her mom, who, despite many setbacks in life, never gave up. She worked day and night to raise her children, although on too many occasions they could barely make ends meet. At age 9, two years after Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, Sandra became responsible for caring for her little brother when her mom became gravely ill and ended up in the hospital for a long time. At age 11 she had to look for a job to help pay for the bills, adding hours of fatigue to her school day and homework.
With so much stress and so many responsibilities, dropping out of school would have been an easy decision to make. And who would have blamed her? Who would have noticed? Like so many young people in Latin America and the Caribbean, she could have dropped out of school to work (around 12 % of young people do). One out of five young people leave school for lack of money. Sandra was determined not to take the easy way out. Instead, she was determined not only to stay in school, but also to study hard and get good grades.
Whenever she felt like giving up on her studies, Sandra would think about her mother and how hard she had to work. Then, she would repeat to herself what her mother told her when she said she wanted to go to the Moon “If you study and work hard, opportunities that you can’t even imagine will come true”. Those words of encouragement, along with her mother’s recurring mantra “don’t repeat the past, don’t repeat my mistakes” helped her move forward.
Sandra faced many obstacles along the way. Many of them were the consequence of being a woman. After getting accepted at the University of Costa Rica, her counselor said that she could not study her chosen career, electrical engineering, because it was not a profession for young ladies. So after studying industrial engineering for three and a half years, a field that didn’t particularly interest her, but was considered acceptable for a woman, she moved to the United States with her family.
In the United States she could study physics and electrical engineering, subjects she really liked. The problem was that she didn’t speak much English, only what she learned in school. In addition, she had to work to pay for her studies. “I always joke saying that I had a seven-year career,” says Sandra referring to the three and a half years of college that she spent in Costa Rica and three and a half more in the U.S., “but it was worth every minute that I invested in this”.
Her education and an undeniable persistence and resilience opened the doors to make her dream come true. Several years later, Sandra became the deputy project manager of Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (MAVEN) at NASA. She helped lead the team that built and put into orbit the first satellite to Mars to help scientists study the red planet’s upper atmosphere.
A strong advocate for education, Sandra is passionate about encouraging young people to dream big and never stop studying to achieve their goals. “Do not ever think that because you come from a poor family you can’t achieve what you want”, she says. “Dream and try to reach these goals, because the more impossible the dream is, the further you will go trying to reach it.”
And if anyone doubts that dreams can come true, they should ask Sandra’s mom.