Alumni Spotlight: Rocket Scientist, Author, and Girl Scout CEO Sylvia Acevedo

Sylvia Acevedo grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where her education began at Head Start. She continued on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from New Mexico State University and then a master’s degree in Systems Engineering from Stanford University, making her the first Latino person to do so.

As she has pursued her passions in science and engineering and become an acclaimed voice in her field, she has remained dedicated to ensuring that the children who follow have access to educational opportunities of their own. In all of Sylvia Acevedo's work, she is a strong proponent of a multi-generational approach that partners with the whole family to meet their needs .

"The success I’ve had in my career is directly attributable not only to hard work but more fundamentally, to the mentorship opportunities I had as a child that started at Head Start. They changed my life trajectory. I have been able to live a life of living and realizing my potential." — Sylvia Acevedo

Sylvia Acevedo shared with NHSA memories of her Head Start experience and how it propelled her to incredible heights. Here is her Head Start story.


How do you believe Head Start laid the foundation for your later educational success?
As the second child in my family I was really impatient to catch up to my brother, who was two years older — to read, write better, and learn new things. I was excited by the prospect of joining him at school and starting that journey.

Head Start presented me the opportunity to build those fundamental reading proficiency skills before I started elementary school and really set me up for success. By the time I started school I was ahead of my classmates because I already knew the alphabet and colors, and could recognize common shapes like circles, triangles, and squares.

My Head Start teacher encouraged me to do book reports for Show and Tell. I practiced presenting the book report to my mom, telling her the story in English and translating the story into Spanish, as my mom only spoke Spanish. Each time I presented to her, I’d try to get to the point more quickly or tell her something new about it. The confidence I gained through those types of activities in Head Start gave me an advantage in the classroom when I officially started school.

So I’m a passionate advocate for early childhood educational experiences because I know the power they have to change young lives. Both Head Start and Girl Scouts instilled confidence in me and allowed me to cultivate a can-do attitude.

What advice do you have for current Head Start families?
I like to say that children are 25 percent of our population but 100 percent of our future. Head Start really gives disadvantaged kids the social-emotional support and social capital that level the playing field, which is so important for their confidence and sense of self-worth.

It’s so important that, from a young age, children understand there is a world of opportunities out there for them, so I want today’s Head Start families to really encourage their kids to dream big and know that they can go on to make their dreams a reality.

I encourage parents to take full advantage of the parent support specialists they have access to through the Head Start program. These specialists can engage parents in the program and help them understand how to navigate the US educational system and stay involved in their child’s education once they enter traditional schools. This parent engagement is essential to early learning, and it’s so important for parents to cultivate those relationships and shared experiences.

What do you think it means to young girls to have strong female role models, especially in fields where women have historically been underrepresented?
Female role models and mentors are indispensable. They can open girls up to new ideas and experiences, and all the opportunities that are available to them. They also give them valuable guidance on how they can achieve their dreams.

My Head Start teacher was one of my first mentors, and she truly changed my life. My Girl Scout troop leader also had an incredible impact on me. She helped me discover my passion for space and astronomy when we were on a troop camping trip. She noticed my fascination with the night sky and pointed out the stars and constellations to me. She later encouraged me to earn my science badge, which I did by building and launching an Estes Rocket after much trial and error!

I took something so powerful away from that experience: that I can do science and math! It was because of the interest I’d sparked at Girl Scouts that I started taking science and math electives in school. The confidence I developed at Girl Scouts enables me to be confident in terms of doing something that not a lot of girls were doing at the time. It led me to be bold and follow my dreams to pursue engineering.

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson is NHSA’s first-ever director of alumni engagement. Back in Cambridge, Head Start is where she made her first best friend — and now, she’s inviting Head Start alumni to connect with one another, share their unique stories, and help keep Head Start strong for generations to come. Join the network here.

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