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Perla Latorre-Suárez fights back tears as she thinks about the sacrifices her parents made, sending her to the mainland from Puerto Rico so she could live her dreams of working in the aerospace industry.

“You know they’ve given it all for me and my brother — I’m sorry,” Latorre-Suárez said as she wiped her eyes.

Her dream is similar to that of Isabella Pardo, a UCF undergraduate student working to earn her degree in photonic science and engineering.

“My goal is to work for an aerospace company in photonics or optics,” Pardo said.

It’s a goal that includes her parents who live back home in her native Colombia.

“I want to give back to them. I want them to feel proud of me,” said Pardo, 21.

Perla and Isabella left their homes at 16 without their parents to follow their dreams. That journey led them to UCF where their work is being recognized internationally.

Both UCF students are making a name for themselves in the STEM fields.

At 24, Perla was named by the Aviation Week Network to be among the best aerospace graduate students in the world who are likely to change the aerospace industry.

“I feel like I’m living a dream that I haven’t woken up from yet,” Latorre- Suárez said.

In 2023 she’ll graduate with a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from UCF.

Twenty-one-year-old Isabella was recognized as one of the first 20 Optica Women Scholars in the world, an award that supports women who are pursuing careers in optics and photonics.

“When I received that award, it just made me think wow, I’ve done so much and just until now I realize it,” Pardo said.

Their achievements include having to learn English.

Despite the language barrier for both Perla and Isabella, they say it’s their families that keep them motivated to succeed.

“I always say that they inspire me, but they say that I inspire them ‘cause that was never an obstacle for me,” Latorre-Suárez said.

As both women look back at their accomplishments, they pride themselves in being able to represent their Hispanic community within the STEM fields.

“When you don’t see a lot of people like you, you might think that you are the problem when that’s not true,” Pardo said. “Me being able to represent my community maybe lessens that lack of representation, and so all these negative thoughts of not belonging.”

“I moved to Florida when I was in my teenage (years) and I learned that out there’s a world full of opportunities,” Latorre-Suárez, said. “I learned that no matter where you are you can still make a difference.”