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Sylvia Acevedo
Credit: Clarion Books / Sylvia Acevedo

More often than not, young women are treated as less than boys—less smart, less tough, less independent, less capable. Fortunately, there are strong women and women-led organizations that work tirelessly to educate young women that there’s no one way they should think, look, act, or feel. One such woman is Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA.

In her debut memoir Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist, out now in both English and Spanish, Acevedo shares her journey growing up in an underprivileged town in Las Cruces, New Mexico and becoming one of the first women to study industrial engineering. Aimed at young readers, Acevedo’s memoir retraces her upbringing and recounts the sometimes sexist ways she was treated in comparison to her older brother. She also describes the love she cultivated for reading and learning, and explains the world of opportunities that Girl Scounts opened for her, her mother, and her younger sister.

From the moment they’re born, young girls are constantly compared to boys. They internalize gender stereotypes during formative stages in their lives that can affect them well into adulthood. However, we’re making positive strides in breaking down and dismissing old-fashioned and patriarchal gender roles. From celebrities opening up about how they reject traditional gender roles when raising their children, to more schools making gym classes gender neutral, to publishing more books showing young girls they can be more than a princess or a ballerina, we’re moving in the right direction.

With Path to the Stars, Acevedo continues to pave the way for young women to navigate the world with the confidence necessary to believe they’re capable of achieving anything.

The Latina rocket scientist and trailblazer found an unshakeable confidence when she joined the Girl Scouts as a child. Through the organization, she found a love for numbers and science. Acevedo shifted cultural expectations at school, at home, and in spaces she never thought she’d be a part of. She was the first Latina to graduate with a master’s in engineering from Stanford University, became a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, worked as an engineer at IBM, and is a commissioner on the White House Initiative for Education Excellence for Hispanics.

We spoke with Acevedo about Path to the Stars, advocating for more young girls in STEM, and the lasting impact Girl Scouts has had on her life. From becoming fluent in English and falling in love with reading at her local library in Las Cruces, Acevedo’s tenacity is evident on every page.

HelloGiggles: What inspired you to share your story?
Sylvia Acevedo: I would be talking to students — over thousands of students — and one day I walked out and there was a line with about 300 students. I thought it was the line for lunch and it turns out it was the line of students that wanted to speak to me. So I stayed and talked to every student, and I realized there was a real interest and a hunger for this story. At that moment, I also realized I can’t possibly reach all the kids at once unless I write a book. And that’s why I decided to write a book.

HG: Girl Scouts has had a lasting impact on you that extends through your adult life. Now, as the CEO of the organization, what are some of the ways you’re fostering confidence in young girls?
SA: In the last two years that I’ve been CEO, Girl Scouts has announced more badges than any other period in time in its 106-year-old history. What I realized is that so many of those badges are technology badges, because girls are big users of technology, but they don’t necessarily have the skills to design and create. And that’s what we’re doing with our badges now. We’re teaching girls about coding, cybersecurity, keeping themselves and their digital lives safe, learning to hack and to prevent hacking, learning about the great outdoors, learning how to think like a programmer or an engineer. [We have] all these amazing programs and I know this is going to give them an advantage in life, just like Girl Scouts gave me a big advantage in life.

HG: As a young girl, whether it was at school or at home, you constantly noticed and tried to reject the gender roles and sexist ways you were treated compared to your brother and other young boys around you. How do you encourage young women to speak up for themselves in these tough situations?
SA: One of the great things about Girl Scouts is we really teach girls about courage and confidence, and really give them the skill to advocate for change that’s positive in their environment. In Girl Scouts we’re all about leadership, teaching them how to be resilient, how to innovate, and how to work with other people so that they can really promote positive change.

HG: Are you working on any upcoming projects or initiatives with Girl Scouts?
SA: I’m especially excited about some of the fun ways we’re applying technology. So many young girls think about technology and think it’s just about computers. But we’ve been working with the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and talking about ways technology is being used in the fashion industry — that’s a three-trillion dollar industry—so it’s all about style, it’s all about clothes, it’s all about fabric, and technology is now part of that. And I’m so excited at Girl Scouts that we’re thinking about ways to merge that so that more girls understand how to utilize technology in all sorts of industries, whether it’s agricultural or even in fashion. So I’m excited about the many worlds of opportunities we’re opening up for young girls.

HG: As one of the first members of your family to attend college, especially a top university like Stanford, did you experience any feelings of inadequacy? How did you cope?
SA: It was a real shock. When I went to Stanford and saw the level of competition, especially at the graduate level, it took me back a little bit. I realized I was going to have to study and prepare at a level I had never done before. I did miss my family [back in Las Cruces], but I was grateful that I had such great preparation. Girl Scouts had helped me learn how to really use resources well and how to work with other mentors in order to get the support I needed to do well in such a rigorous academic environment.

HG: Path to the Stars is going to be published in both English and Spanish. Was that an obvious choice?
SA: It wasn’t obvious. I specifically asked the publisher to publish it in Spanish. My first language at home was Spanish, and my parents encouraged me to learn English and become fluent in it. But I never lost the appreciation of learning and being bilingual, and I think it is such a competitive advantage for students to be bilingual and bicultural in today’s global economy. So I really wanted to encourage students to read my book in English and in Spanish. If it turns out that there’s a lot of family of theirs that only reads Spanish, then they’ll have the opportunity to read the book in Spanish.

HG: What advice would you give young women who are looking to pursue a career in STEM or engineering like you did?
SA: One of the reasons why I wrote the book specifically for middle school is because there’s still that chance they can take those subjects like science, math, and algebra that give them more choices in life. Because if you’ve taken those requirements as electives, you have a lot more choices of fields you can study. So I really wanted to encourage them to continue to study those types of subjects in school, but more importantly, to really believe in themselves and to not let go of their dreams.

Many times students look up to actors, musicians, and athletes because they feel like those are people that never gave up on their dreams. But what they don’t see is that there are so many other people around them, like myself and others, who didn’t give up on their dreams either—they just had a different kind of dream. For me, I like math and science. I was prepared, and because I continued to work hard, I had so many more opportunities in life. So I wanted to give kids hope that they can live out their lives and potential.

Path to the Stars is now available wherever books are sold.