Work on Sac State housing project brings engineering grad full circle

Leticia Valenzuela always had been good at math, so when Sierra College held an engineering seminar the summer after she graduated high school, her friend suggested she attend. She didn’t know much about engineering, but that changed quickly.

“There was a structural engineer who was female, which is rare, and she told us about what she does and did a little exercise with us and had us build something, and it really struck a chord with me,” said Valenzuela. “I really enjoyed it, and that’s literally the day I said, ‘You know, I want to do what she does.’ ”

Valenzuela eventually transferred from Sierra to Sacramento State, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering before starting a career as a staff engineer for Miyamoto International, a global structural engineering and disaster-risk reduction firm.

Her current project with the firm hits close to home: She’s performing the design calculations for Sacramento State’s Hornet Commons, an eight-building student housing complex that broke ground this summer, handling the complicated math needed to ensure each building’s walls and foundations can withstand earthquakes, wind and anything else that may come their way.

In other words, Valenzuela literally is helping to build the campus where she spent five years learning to be an engineer.

“When I first heard that our office got this project, my first thought was, ‘I want to work on that,’ ” she said. “It’s all full circle. I feel like I’m giving back to the school I went to.”

Growing up primarily in Sacramento and Yuba City, Valenzuela was no stranger to buildings and the housing industry: Her father works in construction, and her mother is a real estate agent. The first in her family to attend a four-year university, she initially planned on attending school in San Diego or Oregon. But the recession hit her parents’ industries hard, and when she graduated high school in 2009, she decided to stay local and attend community college.

“Now I look back and I feel as if it all happened for a reason,” she said. “After Sierra, I didn’t want to go far anymore. I wanted to still be close to my parents’ house. I wanted to be close to my family.”

That left her deciding between Sacramento State and UC Davis to finish out her bachelor’s degree. Sac State won out, she said, in part due to its dedication to hands-on, experiential learning. For their senior project, she and her classmates had the opportunity to submit a mock redesign of an actual railroad bridge in Calaveras County. She also participated in the American Society of Civil Engineers, serving as secretary of the student chapter for a year, as well as the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society.

“I feel like I am well prepared (for a career), as well as you can be prepared, because you don’t know what you don’t know until you get out there,” Valenzuela said. “You think, I got all this education, and then in the real world, day by day you’re learning more and more. You build off everything you learned in school.”

She wasn’t thinking about grad school – even though her then-boyfriend and now-husband, Sacramento State alumnus Manny Valenzuela, suggested it – but a random encounter with a professor changed her mind. In an on-campus parking garage, she ran into her soils professor, Cyrus Aryani, who told her that her work was graduate level and that she should consider pursuing her master’s degree.

Aryani taught Valenzuela in an undergraduate and graduate course, and called her one of his top students. He said she aced his exams, an impressive feat “because my exams are usually tough, and hard to get 95-100.”

“She was very smart and she would grasp onto the topics very well, and she understood the material well,” Aryani said. “She worked hard and she always, as I recall, had a smile and a very positive attitude toward everything.

“I saw the potential. She was an excellent student.”

Valenzuela stayed at Sacramento State for her master’s degree while also beginning work at Miyamoto, where she was hired full time after finishing graduate school in 2017. She has conducted design calculations on several local projects, including Del Paso Elementary School in Sacramento, an apartment complex in Roseville, and a military housing facility in Mather.

“She’s very conscientious about what she does. She’s a quick learner, fairly detailed,” said Bob Glasgow, a principal at Miyamoto who earned his master’s in civil engineering at Sacramento State and also taught Valenzuela there. “When you’re studying and going through school, it probably teaches you about 10 percent of what you need to know for your career, so there’s a lot of on-the-job learning. You learn and build experience as you progress by working on many different projects, and she has definitely been doing that.”

Beyond her engineering work, Glasgow said, Valenzuela has given back to the community, helping to organize a Women in Construction volunteer event, and serving as a mentor for high school students in the CREATE Mentoring Program.

Valenzuela doesn’t dwell on the fact that, as a Latina in engineering, she remains a rarity. But she recognizes the impact she can have by showing young people that someone like her can succeed in the field, much as the woman at the Sierra seminar did for her back in 2009.

“I want people to get into the profession. I love it,” she said. “Someone gave a good description one time: Civil (engineering) is for the people. It’s for the community and civic-type things. Ultimately, that’s what we do. We’re giving back.”

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Nicholas Haystings brings no-cost STEM education to underrepresented youths

Nicholas Haystings ’16 (Mechanical Engineering) held several engineering jobs while attending and after graduating from Sacramento State. At all but one of them, he was the only person of color.

If that’s going to change, he says, it’s critical that young people from underrepresented backgrounds receive the message early that the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are a place for them, too.

“It can’t start in college. It can’t even start in high school,” Haystings said. “The conversation has to happen when they’re at a young age, before the pressures of life and society get to them. Before they’re told that STEM isn’t for them, STEM isn’t for girls, STEM isn’t for people that look like you.”

Haystings is doing his part. He is the co-founder and executive director of Square Root Academy, an organization that provides STEM-based education and experiences to underrepresented groups, all at no cost to the participants. The program works with several local school district to provide after-school programming for fifth- through 12-graders, while also sponsoring STEM-focused community events.

Going into its third year, Square Root Academy anticipates it will have about 150 scholars in its after-school programs, while reaching thousands more through its annual Great STEM Summit and Hack the Park festivals.

“Growing up, I always had two goals: Become an engineer, and give back to the community,” Haystings said. “Once I realized my goal of becoming an engineer, got my degree, had some industry experience under my belt, there were a few things that were still bothering me. When you succeed, you’re supposed to bring people up with you, and that was why we started the academy.”

His work is getting noticed: The Sacramento Business Journal named Haystings to its 2019 “40 Under 40” list, which recognizes young professionals in the Sacramento region who “excel in their workplaces and in their communities.”

Interested in science and engineering from a young age, Haystings, a first-generation college student and Sacramento native, enrolled at Sacramento State to be close to home. He eventually decided to major in engineering and appreciated the University’s focus on experiential learning.

“A lot of STEM-based majors at universities, they’re very theory-based,” he said. “Sac State allowed us to get hands-on with the technology, to really experiment.”

The University also exposed him to a diverse range of people, who came with diverse ways of thinking and approaching problems, something he learned from and has carried into his professional life.

“It was a bit of culture shock, in a good way, in a way that helped me grow,” he said. “It expanded my understanding of the world and also my understanding of people.”

While a student, Haystings approached Lorenzo Smith, now the dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, to discuss Square Root Academy. Smith was instantly struck by Haystings’ maturity, vision and commitment.

“He had a full time job and he gave that up to advance the mission of Square Root Academy, which, I’m not sure I would do that,” Smith said. “I can tell you I would not have done that. (It takes) someone like Nicholas who has that dedication to the community and also confidence in his abilities.”

Because he is from the neighborhoods Square Root Academy serves, Smith added, Haystings has credibility when he goes into the community to spread awareness of STEM careers.

“There’s a hunger for what Nicholas is providing,” Smith said. “He’s tapping into a need.”

After graduation, Haystings worked as an environmental engineer in both the public and private sector before helping to start Square Root Academy in 2016. The organization was funded entirely by Haystings and his two co-founders its first year. Today, private and corporate donations as well as partner school districts provide financial support.

At Valley High School, Haystings’ alma mater, working with Square Root Academy has helped students who may not have seen STEM as an option realize that it is.

“It changes their future, their life trajectory,” said Alex Gibbs, Valley High’s engineering chair. “A lot of these students wouldn’t believe that they could go to college and become engineers. But once you get them to believe in themselves, you’ve overcome the hardest hurdle.”

After utilizing Square Root Academy’s after-school programs last year, Valley High has transitioned to a mentorship model, in which the high school students receive résumé; review, help with college applications and other guidance from someone either studying a STEM field in college or working in a STEM career.

“We just really appreciate the work (Nicholas) does with us,” Gibbs said. “I’m glad he’s come back to Valley and given back to where he came from. We can’t appreciate that enough.”

Haystings and Square Root Academy have made accessibility – that is, ensuring their programming is available and relatable to the populations they serve – a priority. The Great STEM Summit and Hack the Park events are held in underserved neighborhoods such as Meadowview and South Sacramento, so that transportation is not a barrier to attendance. They are open to the public, which provides parents with the opportunity to see and engage with what their kids are learning. And the after-school programs are taught by professionals, academics and students who come from similar backgrounds as the participants.

“That representation piece is so huge,” Haystings said. “If a scholar doesn’t see themselves or anyone that looks like them in that position, they assume it’s not for them. It’s important that we show them they can do it and people who look like them can succeed in this field.”

For more information about Square Root Academy, visit the organization’s website.