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“Do They Really Take Girls?” — Passing Preconceptions

When an interest in automotive technology led her to consider courses in high school, Noemi Castro wondered if her gender could be an obstacle. It wasn’t. Through SkillsUSA, she quickly found a confidence-igniting spark that’s led to a full-throttle career.
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Photo courtesy of Noemi Castro. Used with permission.

Noemi Castro likes to keep things moving, which makes perfect sense considering it’s literally her job to teach people how to make sure cars, trucks and buses run when they’re supposed to. And while she wasn’t always sure where her career path might take her, she always wanted to work.

The seeds of that drive were planted after Castro’s family came to the United States from Mexico when she was a small girl. Some of her earliest memories are moving from place to place as her parents took any agricultural jobs that were available. The family even lived in their car for a while. “We didn’t have a permanent home, we would just drive wherever there was work,” Castro says.

Nor did the family have access to a babysitter, so, although she was just a child, Castro often accompanied her parents to work. Wanting to help out, this suited her just fine. “We used to go to work together because I had nowhere else to go,” Castro says. “And there I was ‘working’ (in air quotes) with everyone else.”

By the time she was a teenager, the family had settled in Lassen County in Northern California. At that point, Castro was working at the same farm as her parents. She remembers the long hours and the difficult work, “You’re up when the sun’s up and, you know, even sometimes a little bit before,” she says. “It is hard work, very manual work. But I’m very grateful, because I got to see very early on how sometimes we have to work really hard … and so that was a really good experience.”

Changing Gears

Even as a child, Castro wasn’t just interested in working, but in learning how things work. “When things were broken on the farm, I was young, but I would always look over there like, ‘Oh, I wonder what they’re fixing?’” she says. She was particularly interested in cars. “I always liked cars,” Castro says. “I remember in high school, right before I started taking auto classes, I would spend time with my classmates or my friends on the bus talking about cars.”

As a high school sophomore in 1999, Castro decided to take automotive classes at the suggestion of a friend. “My first thought was, ‘Do they even take girls?’ It was my first question,” Castro explains. “But she’s like, ‘Oh, of course they do. I’m taking those classes.’” Having a friend in the class gave Castro courage, but it was advice from her father that helped her move forward. “My dad said, ‘Try it out, and if it’s something you want to do and if you like doing it now, you know what you want to do,’” Castro explains.

Castro works on an engine. Photo used with permission.

Once she enrolled, she was thrilled to learn that, in addition to herself and her friend, there were a few other young women in the automotive class. “How exciting and how important and encouraging it was — everything at the same time — to see other young women in class, because you already feel a little out of place,” Castro says.

Through the class, Castro was introduced to SkillsUSA by her advisors, Nickcole Paine, Gene Perkins and John Crosby. They were impressed with her ability and suggested she participate in a SkillsUSA competition to test her skills against other students and possibly win some scholarship money. “Our high school chapter competed in quite a bit,” Castro says. “We had automotive, we had diesel, autobody. We did a few. We even had a person competing in Related Technical Math …  that was really exciting.”

With additional encouragement from Paine, Castro campaigned for state office and was elected by her peers. In 2001, she repeated the feat on the national level, becoming SkillsUSA’s national high school secretary.

Into the Fast Lane

Castro (back row, third from left) and the 2001-2002 National Officer team. Photo by Lloyd Wolf

Castro says her participation in the leadership activities for SkillsUSA opened a lot of doors for her, and one of them opened during the 2002 National Leadership and Skills Conference. Castro was a speaker at an automotive industry event. After she told her story, she was presented with several scholarship offers to help her get her degree with the promise of a job after graduation. In the end, she settled on Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (then known as DaimlerChrysler) and joined their College Automotive Program. After completing that, she went to work for them in Irvine, Calif.

It was a full-circle moment for Castro, who had toured their Michigan headquarters as a student. “I remember walking through the headquarters in Auburn Hills and I’m like, ‘I was here how many years ago?’ ” Castro recalls. “That one speech really changed it all.”

Castro worked as a technical advisor for the company, one of only 75 in the country. “I was the only woman,” she says.

After working at Fiat Chrysler for a few years, Castro took on the role of training future technicians as an automotive instructor. She taught at Santa Ana (Calif.) College before moving on to Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., where she currently teaches evening classes.

“At Saddleback, I really find that program really phenomenal, because we stay current just by being in the industry, and that knowledge gets transferred to the students,” Castro explains.

Castro’s full-time job is at Immersed Technologies, where she works as a technological consultant. “We do a lot of very interactive online training for different automotive and transportation areas,” she explains. “That’s allowed me to really stay current.”

Staying current has helped her as she continues to learn new things even as she instructs the next generation of technicians. “We’re always upskilling for sure, because the technology is ever-changing,” Castro says. “At the same time, it’s still the basics. It still comes back to the basics, which is still really exciting in itself, because we as we update our skills, we just keep going forward … There are a lot of cool things coming that we get to see and then we get to teach others with it, which is even more exciting.”

Full Throttle

When she’s not teaching in the classrooms or online, Castro blows off steam as a fitness instructor. “I teach a weightlifting class, I teach cardio conditioning and I teach a mindbody class very similar to yoga,” Castro says. “I realized my big strength is I’m not shy when it comes to helping people. So, the fitness industry has been a great, great part of my life as well lately.”

If she could give advice to 2021 graduates and beyond? “My advice is to really follow your passion and get started as soon as you really feel deep in your heart that that’s what you want to do,” Castro says.

She goes on to explain that sometimes beginning a journey is the hardest part. “Getting started means you have to overcome the fear that you’re going to stay in the same place if you don’t move forward,” she says.

“The really important piece of advice is ‘get started,’” Castro continues. “And then once you’re there, ask around so that you can help yourself, because you don’t know where you’re going to be. You might be helping others one day just like somebody helped you. So that’s really exciting!”

On the Web

We profiled Noemi Castro in the fall 2003 issue of SkillsUSA Champions magazine in an article called On the Fast Track:

If you’d like to listen to Castro’s full interview on the SkillsUSA Podcast, it’s available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

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