Photo courtesy of Sheila Vasquez
In the midst of COVID lockdowns, Sheila Vasquez got inspired as she watched her daughter reading books in the family library. “She loves books,” Vasquez says, “I saw her always exploring different books. And instead of watching a show or playing with a toy, she would run and grab a book.”
That was when she first considered writing a book with her daughter. “I said, ‘How awesome would it be if she could see herself in a book?’”
Becoming a children’s book author is a bit different than her day job as assistant chief counsel for the Department of Homeland Security in Miami, but Vasquez has always been versatile. Joining SkillsUSA as a high school student helped her turn that positive character trait into wide-ranging success.
Mentors Open Doors
As a child growing up in Rhode Island, Vasquez was always a good student and loved school, describing herself as “very studious.”
“I was so excited to do my homework. I would just be excited about markers and highlighters and different cool rulers and things like that. I was really into school,” she says. Ever the multi-talent, she also took time to participate in cheerleading and — as a high school student at Cranston Area Career and Technical Center — SkillsUSA.
Vasquez was introduced to SkillsUSA by her high school culinary arts instructor, Chef Martha Sylvestre, who convinced Vasquez to join. Vasquez embraced SkillsUSA membership with the same passion she’d embraced school in general. Maybe more.
“I started getting involved so much that I loved it, and I ended up running for state office,” she says.
Serving as a state officer led Vasquez to another mentor in Joshua Klemp, SkillsUSA Rhode Island’s current state director who was assistant director at the time. Klemp saw Vasquez’s potential right away, helping to prepare her for a run at national office the following year. “She was always a go-getter,” Klemp says, “She had ambition and knew what she wanted to do, and she was always working toward that goal.”
At SkillsUSA’s 2006 National Leadership & Skills Conference, Vasquez officially became a national officer, serving as Region I vice president for the 2006-07 school year. “I can’t even put into one word how much of an impact it really made on my life,” she says. “I came from Cranston, Rhode Island. It’s very small.”
The traveling opportunities Vasquez experienced as a national officer really opened up her world, but she remains most grateful for the leadership training and personal and workplace skills she learned in SkillsUSA. “I really developed my skills and learned so much,” she says, explaining that “core, key things” like etiquette aren’t always taught to high school students.
Her first trip as a national officer was to Caterpillar’s headquarters in Peoria, Ill.
“I could not believe that I was in a room [at Caterpillar] to give a speech on SkillsUSA, and everyone was just amazed that I was in high school,” Vasquez remembers. She walked away from that trip with a job offer, but she had other plans for her next adventure.
A New Mentor Leads to a New Career Path
Through SkillsUSA, Vasquez received money for college. “I actually got a full tuition scholarship to Johnson & Wales thanks to SkillsUSA,” she says. “It’s mind blowing to think about it. I’m first-generation in the United States. I really relied on scholarships and my grades to get to college.”
“Getting that scholarship really did it for me,” Vasquez continues, “[It] gave me an opportunity to go to college and not have to worry about, you know, taking out a loan or having to work.
I would just get to focus on my studies.”
The scholarship was valid for any Johnson & Wales campus, so Vasquez chose Miami. “I was so tired of the cold,” she explains. She’s been in Florida ever since.
At Johnson & Wales, Vasquez studied both Food and Beverage Management and Hospitality Management, choices also influenced by Sylvestre.
“She said she really could see me in the administration side of things, running a restaurant,” Vasquez remembers, “Running a hotel, you know, instead of cooking and being in the kitchen.”
Vasquez knew she learned best with hands-on experience, so she got a job at a luxury hotel to enhance her studies. She quickly moved up the ladder there and, despite her relative youth, was soon the front-office manager.
To graduate, Vasquez needed to find an internship. Interested in the possibility of becoming a corporate attorney for a hotel or restaurant, she found one at the Brody Law Firm. She also found her next mentor in Damon Brody, the firm’s partner/owner. Through his guidance, Vasquez discovered a passion for law, and she decided to pursue a Doctor of Law degree at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.
“He’s guided me, you know, every step of the way from every job,” Vasquez says.
After stints as assistant state attorney in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office and for the City of North Miami, Vasquez now serves as assistant chief counsel for the Office of Homeland Security. There, she handles immigration cases for the federal government.
As an immigrant herself, Vasquez brings a unique and valuable perspective to the job. “I think [being an immigrant] is one of the things that makes me fair and just and open,” she says.
A Child’s Wisdom
Having a daughter of her own — Jazara — inspired Vasquez to write a children’s book. It’s no surprise that, before writing, she researched the process and the industry. She also conducted some great market research with her daughter, who, in a way, served as the next mentor on her journey.
“I did a lot of research in terms of what colors are best for children at that age,” she says. “Using different words that appeal to children her age. A lot of thought went into it. A lot of love went into it.”
The result was “Play Outside, Let’s Go!”, a book that centers on family values and relationships through the day-to-day interactions of “Zar,” a “curious and eager” toddler. The book is designed to teach children lessons in the areas of compassion, curiosity and creativity.
When it came time to publish, Vasquez decided to go the self-publishing route. “I really loved the control that I was able to have in terms of creativity,” she says, noting that the content from the book came directly from her daughter.
“The words are words that she uses. The things that she does in the book are things that she was doing at the time,” Vasquez says, noting that the book’s artist — Lana Lee — drew the main character to resemble Jazara. “It’s really a work of art,” Vasquez says.
While there are plans for a sequel to the book, this time focused on traveling, Vasquez has found it more difficult to write since the resumption of normal day-to-day activities post-lockdown. “I don’t have as much downtime as I did,” she explains.
Asked what advice she’d give today’s SkillsUSA students, Vasquez said, “Seek a mentorship.
You’ve just got to seek it. And that’s one of my life secrets,” she says. “When you have someone who is passionate about an area or a skill or a class or a field that you’re not familiar with, you can look to that person. Ask them questions. ‘How did you get here?’ Because everyone has a different story and you always learn something from someone.”
Sheila Vasquez on the SkillsUSA Podcast