Woman immigrates to the US at age 17 with only $300, now she leads the NASA Mars Rover Team

Diana Trujillo, 17 years old, moved to the USA from Cali, Colombia with $300 in her pocket to fulfill her dream of exploring the universe and exploring outer space.

A few decades later, Trujillo now works as an aerospace engineer for NASA, leading a team of 45 people at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Her team designed the robotic arm that will collect rock samples from Mars for the Perseverance Mars Rover.

Trujillo knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue science careers, but many obstacles stood in her way. As a Latina woman in a field dominated by males, she wasn’t sure how to advance her career.


Trujillo, 17, left her parents’ divorce and packed her bags to move to the USA with $300. She was determined to succeed in her new home and accepted every job she was offered.

The teen worked as a housekeeper to pay for her Miami Dade College education. There she also took English classes and enrolled into aerospace engineering courses.

Trujillo was sometimes forced to ride six buses to get her to school. She never complained. Despite the fact that she had to clean bathrooms in order to pay tuition, Trujillo never felt resentful.

Diana Trujillo wearing a red face mask and headphones at NASA

“I saw everything coming my way as an opportunity,” Trujillo said. “I didn’t see it as, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this job at night,’ or ‘I can’t believe that I’m cleaning. I can’t believe that I’m cleaning a bathroom right now.’ It was just more like, ‘I’m glad that I have a job and I can buy food and and have a house to sleep.’ And so, I think that all of those things make me, and even today, helps me see life differently. I see it more as every instant I need to be present because every instance matters.”

Diana Trujillo

Trujillo was a space pioneer because she wanted to prove her family wrong. She wanted the men in her family to recognize that “women add value.”

“It came from wanting to prove to them that we matter,” she said.

But that would change when she was a college student. Trujillo recalls being at the University of Florida’s decision-making table and not knowing what major she wanted. She spotted a magazine with images of female astronauts and a spaceship, which she was able to show the dean.

Diana Trujillo showing the robotic arm her team created

That helped her choose aerospace engineering as her major. Trujillo noticed there were few Hispanic students waiting in line with her. She was also the only woman in line.

Throughout her career, a similar theme dominated. She would be one of few Latinas who worked in science. Perseverance’s surface flight director reminds her that she is not only representing herself, but also her country, culture and heritage. This awareness drives her to do her best every single time.

Hispanics are only 8% of STEM workforce. Hispanic females make up 2%. Trujillo believes there’s only one way to break the glass ceiling—to have more role models in the field.

So, she decided to host NASA’s first-ever Spanish language broadcast for a planetary landing shown. The show, called “Juntos perseveramos,” which translates to “Together we persevere,” has garnered over 2.6 million views on YouTube since it streamed in February this year.

Diana Trujillo at the 2019 MAKERS Conference

Trujillo knows that more women are Latin scientists and engineers, which will encourage more kids to pursue STEM careers. Family members will be more likely to encourage their younger children to take on these roles instead of the stereotypical ones they were told to.

“The abuelas, the moms or dads, the uncles, los primos, like everyone has to see this,” Trujillo said. “And they have to see a woman in there, too. So, that they can turn around to the younger generation and say she can do it, you can do it.”

Trujillo hopes to one day fulfill her goal of reaching space, but for now, her mission is to encourage young people—especially women—to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Check out the video below to watch Diana Trujillo’s interview with The Drew Barrymore Show.

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