From living in a car to making her living working on cars. From a quiet student with poor English skills to a confident student leader delivering speeches at the U.S. Capitol. From a shy young girl with low expectations for her future to a skilled, confident young adult eager to reach her potential.
This is the transformation of Noemi Castro. And, at 20 years old, she’s just getting started.
As a child, “I didn’t play with Barbie dolls, I played with cars most of the time, little toy cars,” Castro remembers. “I would look at them and wonder what was going on, what made them run. But I never thought of [an automotive career] as a possibility, just because of how the family was living.”
She was only 1 year old when her parents brought her to Los Angeles from Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1985. “They just moved here because they wanted a better future,” Castro says. “They were in search of the American dream.”
Her parents found work as field laborers, making a stable home life difficult. As old jobs ended, the family often moved across the California landscape in search of new ones.
“We used to live in a car, so basically we were real roamers,” she adds. “I do remember some of it, but I was young, about 4 or so.” As the family grew—she’s the eldest of four children—they were able to upgrade to a mobile home but still followed whatever path led to their next source of income.
Only a few years ago, when Castro imagined her future, she saw herself following those same paths. “My plans were just to be with my family and hopefully finish high school,” she explains. “That’s basically what my goal was up until my sophomore year, when I realized there was a little bit more out there.”
Finding a Place to Belong
Those plans changed after a friend, aware of Castro’s long-held interest in cars, suggested she enroll in the local Automotive Youth Education Systems (AYES) program at Lassen Technical Institute in Susanville, Calif.
Castro was hesitant about entering the male-dominated field. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’m a female, they’re not going to take me,’” she remembers. Her counselor wasn’t thrilled with the idea, either. “But I just said, ‘Well, let’s try it out and if I don’t like it, at least I’ll know.’”
Unknowingly, Castro had just taken an off-ramp that would lead her to highways she never even knew existed.
Studying the basics of automotive technology, from checking coolant levels to changing tires, Castro felt something she’d never felt before: a sense of belonging.
“It was good, because I actually felt like I was somewhere I was supposed to be,” she says. “I didn’t feel out of place anymore, like I did during my first year of high school or my elementary school years.”
That sense of belonging became a sense of purpose when another friend suggested Castro join SkillsUSA. Regional automotive competitions were approaching, and SkillsUSA membership meant that Castro could join the team.
It was a good way to meet new people and cultivate new relationships, she thought. “We passed the regional and made it to the state level, but then my advisor saw some sort of potential in me and asked if I’d be interested in becoming a state officer.”
An Awakening Potential
A year earlier, Castro wouldn’t have dreamed of assuming any sort of leadership role. But now she was different.
“Not only was I learning things that I liked to do,” she remembers, “but at the same time I was gaining more experience as far as automotive.
“I started having more friends. I started to be more sociable, because I now knew how to interact with people. By the time it came to apply for state officer, I already had a bit more confidence, so I did it.”
Her term as a state officer provided the opportunity for further growth beyond the automotive arena. “When I first started, I was a little rough as far as public speaking,” she says. “I didn’t know the proper poise and I had very little leadership skills.”
But as Castro began writing her own speeches and delivering them to new and varied audiences, the old expectations for her future had no choice but to finally move into the slow lane, yielding the right of way to the headlight-flashing potential that had finally captured her attention.
Her SkillsUSA advisor saw it, too, and persuaded Castro to accept a new challenge: a run for national office. After a year of intense preparation and campaigning, Castro found herself at the 2001 national conference, waiting to hear her name announced as the new national secondary secretary.
“Well, I probably literally jumped about 5 feet in the air, because I was so happy,” Castro says. “All that hard work had paid off. I was excited to know that I was going to be traveling the United States and helping so many students through [SkillsUSA].”
The next year was a sudden shift into high gear, as Castro took on duties she’d never have considered before and tasks she never knew she could accomplish.
“It was a lot to take in, definitely,” she admits. Her most memorable assignment was a visit to Capitol Hill, where Castro championed career and technical education to a group of America’s top policy-makers, including the U.S. Education Department’s assistant secretary of vocational and adult education. “That was very exciting, but just the magnitude of it was kind of scary.”
Joining a New Team
Meanwhile, Castro was excelling in her automotive studies. But there were still more unexpected off-ramps to come in her journey.
At SkillsUSA’s 2002 national conference, Castro delivered a speech to supporters from the automotive industry. She described her story, her growth through SkillsUSA and her goal to be an automotive technician.
“So I gave my speech, and they liked it,” she says. That’s an understatement. The student quickly found herself with scholarship and job offers from General Motors, Caterpillar and DaimlerChrysler. After much deliberation, she decided to join the DaimlerChrysler team, entering their College Automotive Program with a full scholarship and the promise of employment.
“It works on an internship basis,” Castro says of the program. “You go to school, you’re in your automotive course, and then they offer you the opportunity to work in a dealership within the company. You learn a lot, and it’s a constant upgrade of information.”
After completing the program (in which she’s maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average), Castro will be promoted to an automotive technician within the dealership. And with one goal nearing accomplishment, she has already settled on a new one: becoming a corporate representative for DaimlerChrysler.
Pointing Out the Opportunities
Castro continues to be an advocate for career and technical education, both in word and by example—and not only to other students, but also to her parents, Jose and Maria.
“They didn’t understand the magnitude of it at first,” she says about her successes within SkillsUSA, “but they’re really supportive of it at all times now.”
Castro believes her story isn’t the exception, claiming that all students can find the same opportunities for success she’s discovered if they participate in SkillsUSA.
“A SkillsUSA student is generally more well-rounded than a regular high school student, just for the fact of being able to have all those employability skills, social skills, the discipline they go through,” she points out. “They learn how to make more use of their time and their talent.”
And what if Castro hadn’t joined SkillsUSA?
“I believe I would be an agricultural worker,” she replies, “with not a lot of education past high school. Not to say that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I wouldn’t be able to advance in education and wouldn’t have a technical background. I discovered the actual potential I have to go as far as I want to go.”
Noemi’s story has been updated in April 2021. You can read it and hear her podcast interview here.