Lissette Beltran planned for a career as a patent lawyer.
A senior at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Beltran is in the honors law program working toward a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. After interning with NASA, she now wants to help make history.
"It was kind of like eye-opening ... working alongside the best engineers in the country," said Beltran, 22, formerly of Hanover Park. "At that moment, I knew law wasn't it for me, at least not now. I want to be an engineer, a NASA engineer."
The 2013 Bartlett High School graduate spoke Friday to students at her former grade school -- Horizon Elementary in Hanover Park -- about her career trajectory from Elgin Area School District U-46 schools to landing five full-time job offers with NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Beltran talked about NASA's history, the International Space Station, her recent role with the agency, and shared fun videos about how astronauts make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in space.
"When they ask you in elementary school what do you want to be when you grow up, your first answer is firefighter, police officer, teacher ... but astronaut or engineer never came to mind," Beltran said.
Finding her mission
Beltran had no intention of becoming an engineer. She was part of Bartlett High's Science, Engineering, and High Technology Academy, which provides accelerated mathematics and science curricula with advanced placement opportunities.
During junior year in college, Beltran attended a science, technology, engineering and math conference in California and landed an internship with Lockheed Martin working as a software engineer in Orlando, Florida.
"I wanted to enhance technical skills in the field," she said, adding, upon a friend's recommendation she then applied for NASA's Pathways Program for employment training. "I submitted 13 applications to NASA centers across the country. I received 11 rejections and I got one interview ... got in at NASA Johnson Center in Houston."
Beltran spent two semesters and two summers working for various organizations within NASA -- as a software developer for Flight Operations, helping with robotics and testing the functionality of NASA's new prototype spacesuit for deep space missions.
She said the best part was working at the Mission Control Center and knowing she was "contributing to something historical."
"That's where history was made and I had the privilege of working there and working with people who were alive during the Apollo shuttle program," Beltran said.
Now, she says, even becoming an astronaut isn't out of the question.
"I worked hard and I got here. I stopped setting limits," Beltran said. "I will continue to work hard and figure out what's next for me."
After she graduates from IIT in May, Beltran will join NASA Johnson Space Center as a robotics engineer.
Breaking the mold
Born to first-generation Mexican immigrants, Beltran credits her parents, Armandina and Faustino Beltran of Hanover Park, for inspiring her to dream big. Though they studied only through middle school, her parents always stressed the importance and value of education, she said.
"They came here to give their children a better future," she said. "It was their support, honestly, that kept me going. They never set limits on what my goals were."
Being a Hispanic woman comes with its own cultural trappings and stereotypes.
"I'm supposed to not leave the house until I'm married. I'm supposed to probably have kids by now, not go to college. I should probably be on my second child," Beltran said. "I never fit into that mold."
Now, Beltran hopes to inspire the next generation of NASA scientists.
"I want to be the role model I wish I had growing up," she said. "You don't have to be an engineer to work at NASA. There are so many other careers ... scientists, doctors ... that lead to NASA."