DEI Chats: Myra Blanco, Director of Advancement, Partnerships & Outreach, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute
Posted: Tuesday, October 5, 2021
Each month, SAE International is having honest conversations with our members, volunteers, and employees about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the world of mobility. We reflect with our partners on how their identity has shaped their experience in the field and how we can work toward a more equitable and inclusive future.
This month, we sat down with Director of Advancement, Partnerships & Outreach at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), Myra Blanco, Ph.D.
It’s very hard to be what you can’t see.
For Myra Blanco, those blind spots were everywhere as a young girl in Puerto Rico interested in cars. She worked hard to become the blueprint for young women hoping to see themselves in transportation professionals.
When Myra started her undergraduate program studying mechanical engineering, she was one of just four women in a class of over 100 students.
“There’s a big need for fields like this one for females to be incentivized to be a part of the field,” she said. “One thing that we need to do and encourage is for them to be able to see people who look like them. Having that role model, that figure, rather than a policy speaks more for that organization.”
This starts with educators and mentors that are present within a student’s life as they imagine the possibilities for the future, but it also extends to others within their sphere of influence. Growing up with a mechanic for a father is one factor Myra contributes for her early interest in transportation technology, and her childhood in Puerto Rico gave her insights into needs that others in the industry may overlook.
“An aspect I’m very passionate about is mobility equity and transportation equity. I see transportation as the great equalizer,” she said.
Understanding the public transportation infrastructure and the typical access to transportation and mobility options in Puerto Rico has allowed Myra to imagine improvements that meet the needs of those from a background similar to hers, connecting folks to food, work, medical appointments and each other.
“I grew up on a small island and it was very interesting because none of my grandparents own a vehicle. I grew up with my mom as a single parent, and she didn’t have a vehicle, so we were using public transportation to be able to go and visit people, to go to medical appointments, and it’s very difficult if the system is not well-designed,” Myra said.
There’s also the question of how natural disasters can rock the transportation infrastructure and create new challenges for those relying on public roads, including private vehicle owners and public transportation users alike.
“You don’t have a neighboring state that can come and bring resources or come and help fix the resources, so you need to be savvy on where you put your resources and how you are able to optimize what you have,” Myra said. “So, knowing what the struggles are in a small environment and the resources that we are privileged to have in the United States, I think it gives you a great perspective on what are the needs that people who are in higher levels of the organization may not have had to experience, so I hope I can contribute that.”
Myra has been working to connect young people like herself who are bringing the knowledge of their unique experiences with opportunities in the field through her work at Virginia Tech. She’s been behind efforts to create a pipeline for students to access scholarship and internship opportunities as well as connect with mentors who reflect their interests. She’s also created a Women in Transportation (WTS) chapter at Virginia Tech to allow female students to come together for support as they pursue their careers as well as VTTI’s RIDE (Road to Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity) program to mimic what a workforce should look like.
“I’m very impressed by and very hopeful for this next generation of professionals because I think they’re going to be able to do way more than we have so far,” Myra said. “I think they have a completely different and proactive vision; I think they are attracted not only by a paycheck, but how much good they can put back in the world.”