Wonder Woman. Supergirl. Virginia Mata. The last of these may look out of place, but what else besides superpowers can explain how this petite young woman keeps doing the impossible?
Even before high school graduation, Mata demonstrated that she could speed up the clock, earning enough credits for an associate’s degree (now 19, she’s already working toward a doctorate). She trounced foes who seemed much stronger, winning debate competitions against college students and succeeding in a male-dominated industry. While appearing to be a mild-mannered teen-ager by day, she quick-changed into an intern with an engineering firm, a mentor at a community college, and a national officer for SkillsUSA. Oh, and she was a cheerleader, too.
Before you start thinking she can outrun a speeding bullet, her story has also had its share of stumbles. As a freshman at Fontana (Calif.) High School, Mata thought she had her life all mapped out — “I was going to be a lawyer, no doubt in my mind” — so she developed her communication skills, taking part in debate and public speaking competitions. At one event, she was pitted against college students at California State University. “I took both first and second place because I ranked so high,” she says.
Her excitement about law school was dampened, however, when instructor Bill Clark asked her how she planned to finance it. “I was so naive,” Mata recalls. “I assumed my mom would pay for it, but I had no idea that law school was so expensive.” Clark proposed an alternative: his machine shop class. “He said, ‘Let me introduce you to something else, something you can work with part-time, and if you enjoy it, you can pay your own way to go to law school.’ He said there were a lot of opportunities in the field.”
The idea appealed to Mata. Telling her mother didn’t. “My mom has always raised me by herself,” she says. “I looked at her and said, ‘Mom, I always wanted to be a lawyer, but I know how hard it will be for you to put me through law school, so why don’t I do something that will help us both out?’ She says at that moment she saw her baby girl grow into an adult.”
Unfortunately, most of the male students in her machining class didn’t see her the same way. “They took every opportunity to make fun of me,” Mata says, “to tell me I wasn’t going to be able to do it, that I wasn’t capable of doing it. It pushed me to want to do a little bit more.”
If Mata’s subsequent efforts fall under her definition of “little,” then who knows what would’ve happened if she’d decided to do “a lot” more. She began taking machine shop classes at San Bernadino Community College, “so I could get familiar with the machine shop and the concept of engineering,” she explains.
Mata became active in SkillsUSA, drawn to its leadership aspects. When advisor Brent Tuttle asked if she’d ever done any public speaking, she had to laugh. She knew she was in the right place.
Becoming a SkillsUSA state officer, then a national officer, Mata traveled extensively as a proponent of career and technical education. “It helped me so much,” she remembers. “I learned skills I use now and will use 20 years from now.”
Around the same time, Mata also began an internship with Walker Corp. in Ontario, Calif., where among many duties she wrote precise work instructions for the manufacturing process of a variety of parts. It all made for a whirlwind lifestyle.
“I was attending high school four hours a day,” she says, “then would leave to go to my college classes and be there until about 4, then go to my work in the evening. For a while, I was also working at the community college — mentoring other students in basic programming — which was a huge step for me, being a student and helping other students at the same time.”
How did she maintain this type of schedule? “I love what I do,” she replies. “The rewards far outweigh the obstacles so much once you see what the benefits are in the long run.”
While Mata won’t admit to having superpowers, she does credit her mother and two older siblings as being her very strong “backbone,” adding, “Without my family, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Where Mata is today is on the threshold of a promising future in a field she loves and in which she excels. The college credits she accumulated by high school graduation were more than enough for an associate of science degree in manufacturing. She plans to get her doctorate from California State University at Los Angeles, where she’ll study manufacturing engineering with a minor in biomedical engineering.
Come to think of it, Mata does claim to have one superpower at her disposal. However, it’s something she insists is available to everyone.
“I’m such an advocate of education,” she says. “Whether you’re 82 or 18, it’s never too late or too early.”