She was a young girl of 9 or 10 or 11, walking to school from the projects past crack vials and decayed houses in a Brooklyn neighborhood so threatening that her mother wouldn’t let her play outside.
At home, she spent hours with books from the library, devouring them, keeping them long past their due date as if they were refuge from the chaos all around her. Her mind bent toward math and science. “They were never subjective,” she says. “There was always an answer. There was always a solution.”
“I always wanted to solve problems,” Thais Jimenez continues. “Those crack houses — my only goal in life was to rebuild those houses and make a better world to live in. I always figured there had to be a better way. People shouldn’t live like this.
“I swore to myself I wasn’t going to be a statistic.”
Revering a grandfather who went to night school while raising five children as a subway conductor, Thais resolved to get into the best schools she could. She passed the exam that got her into esteemed Brooklyn Tech High School, and when she delved into all that science and engineering, she excelled.
Lots of full-boat college scholarships came her way, but she chose Cornell University’s School of Engineering, a tougher road. She had to work two or three jobs, and so did her mother, to supplement loans and grants to make tuition. The academics were just about the most demanding of any school. She never felt as much stress in her life, not even later when she had to cope with corporate America.
But she prevailed.
“There were 20 people of color who were in my class at the start,” she says. “I was one of two to graduate.”
Thais now plays a leadership role in Verizon’s 911 network, the vital lines that people rely on in emergencies. She started with the company right out of college as an outside plant engineer 17 years ago, when it was NYNEX. From there, she became a FIOS video planner and now manages the E911 group of the network team, making sure the circuits are diverse, or redundant, so if one fiber breaks, the call will get through on another one.
She’s a high-level manager, with a master’s of telecommunications management from New York’s Stevens Institute. On her time off likes to cook, devising complicated recipes from ingredients on hand, or quilt or read the “Game of Thrones” novels. “It’s all in line with the nerd I am,” she laughs.
But she has not forgotten where she came from. She mentors female engineering students at Cornell, helping one student at a time make it through the grueling four years.
“You meet them once or twice a year, you take their phone calls in the middle of the night, you advise them on how to withstand the pressure,” Thais says. Her proudest moment: seeing one of her charges progress to a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley and become a engineer in Chicago.
The mentoring didn’t end there. “You help them learn to balance life and work and a career,” she says. “How to be a woman and an engineer in a corporate environment.”
It is important work because women and minorities remain vastly underrepresented in engineering. Only 6 percent of the nation’s engineers are Latino, and just 13 percent are female, according to a 2011 report from the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.
Lately, Thais has started doing outreach to middle schools, encouraging minority youngsters to reach for Brooklyn Tech, letting them know about the qualifying exam before it’s too late to prepare for it. She tells them they don’t have to be an athlete to succeed. They can more realistically shoot for a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
“I tell them that all engineering is about solving problems — and they can do that,” Thais says. “I want them to see what an education can do for you.
“I show them: here’s someone who started out like you and went to an Ivy League school and made a career at Verizon.”