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Las Cruces engineer crowned Miss New Mexico USA

Miss New Mexico USA 2018 Kristen Leyva, left, reacts as Miss New Mexico USA 2017 Ashley Mora congratulates her at the conclusion of the pageant held at Oñate High School in January. (Las Cruces Sun-News)

The mechanical engineer crowned Miss New Mexico USA in a statewide pageant earlier this year hopes to use the role to inspire children, especially girls, to become engineers and scientists.

New Mexico native Kristen Leyva, 23, attended Desert Hills Elementary, Camino Real Middle School and Oñate High, all in Las Cruce. Her mother was a single parent who became a mechanical engineer, and, in doing so, inspired her daughter to pursue the same career.

Leyva recalls having a “persistent curiosity” as a child that got her into trouble once when she dismantled the family computer in hopes of finding out how it worked.

Her mother worked as an engineer for NASA on White Sands Missile Range. And, recognizing her daughter’s interest in science, opted to take her to work on an important day: the launch of a crew vehicle for the International Space Station. Leyva said she saw her mom as a “rock star” that day and wanted to be like her.

After graduating from high school in 2012, she opted to attend New Mexico State University, where her mother had attended, because she thought it was a high-quality program. And, having a close bond with her mother and older sister, she wanted to stay close to home.

Leyva’s mother, Jo Leyva, had sometimes taken her daughters to the NMSU campus when she didn’t have a babysitter. They’d stay in a nearby classroom while their mom’s class took place. Kristen Leyva said it was strange returning to the same buildings years later, this time as the student.

Kristen Leyva said the mechanical engineering program was challenging. But another challenge arose along the way: Her mother, Jo Leyva, began a battle with colon cancer. In her junior and senior years, Kristen Leyva helped to care for her mom, in addition to juggling school and work.

Unfortunately, Jo Leyva died two months shy of her daughter’s graduation from NMSU in December 2016. It was a difficult loss, and for months after, Kristen Leyva said she avoided reading her mom’s obituary. When she finally did read it, she noticed that one of the highlights was her mother’s interest in promoting the field of engineering among young students. In honor of her mom, Kristen Leyva decided to take on the same mantle.

“I wanted to be the same kind of role model she was for me,” Kristen Leyva said.

Leyva becomes the second reigning state pageant holder to hail from Las Cruces.

Inspiring girls

Soon, Kristen Leyva had developed the #JustOne program, a reference to the idea that it takes just one role model or mentor to inspire a student to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or math — STEM. Though the project took a while to get off the ground, Kristen Leyva began visiting New Mexico classrooms to talk about STEM. She works with each teacher to develop the presentation and tie it into what students are learning. She doesn’t charge schools for the presentations or any materials she uses. Sometimes she has carried out science experiments.

She hopes girls in particular will take notice. She said she wants to send the message: “There’s no such thing as a barrier to pursuing a degree in engineering or a degree in science.”

Kristen Levya said when she started her degree program at NMSU, there were about 30 women alongside her. But by the time she graduated, she was one of two. She thinks more women would pursue the field and stick with it if there were more female mentors to encourage them along the way.

Kristen Leyva works for Raytheon, a contractor for WSMR. And she said there are a lot of STEM jobs in New Mexico, something students might not realize.

“If we promote STEM in the schools, we’re also gearing up our next generation to take over in New Mexico,” she said.

Winning the pageant

Leyva said she entered her first pageant at the age of 19. She thought it would be a good way to brush up on her interview skills, knowing that’s something needed in the workforce. After that, she didn’t compete for a few years because she was busy helping her mother.

Kristen Leyva was named Miss New Mexico at the conclusion of the pageant held at Oñate High School in January. (Las Cruces Sun-News)

More recently, Leyva began to see the Miss New Mexico USA contest as a way to boost the momentum for her efforts to promote STEM. Last weekend’s event was the first pageant Leyva competed in since her mom’s death in 2016. When the announcement was made that she’d won, she said she experienced a “flood of emotions,” driven in part by her mother’s absence and her own hope of continuing her mom’s legacy.

“It’s occurred to me: I have become my mother’s daughter,” she said. “I think I would have had that moment whether I had won or whether I hadn’t.”

Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said Leyva, as an engineer and graduate of NMSU, will be a “fantastic role model for our youth and young adults.”

“We’re especially proud she’s from Las Cruces,” he said. “I’m also happy to hear she’s going to talk about STEM because I believe that’s the future and direction of where the country is going, the economy is going.”

The national competition

The date and location for the Miss USA competition haven’t been set. But Leyva will be the state’s representative. She wants to shine a spotlight on the state and also break stereotypes about female roles.

“It’s OK to be both — It’s OK to be Miss NM USA, and it’s OK to be an engineer,” she said.

Leyva is pursuing a master’s degree in industrial engineering at NMSU. She’d like to earn a doctorate and become a professor who’ll focus on mentoring women in the engineering profession.

“I love being in the classroom,” she said. “I think that kind of role is more successful than any material success I’ll ever achieve.”

Leyva said she calls New Mexico home, and though she eventually might move to another place temporarily, she’ll wind up back in the state in the long-run.

So, what’s Leyva’s answer to the official state question?

“Christmas,” she said.

Second title holder

Leyva becomes the second reigning state pageant holder to hail from Las Cruces.

In June 2017, Las Crucen Taylor Rey was crowned Miss New Mexico as part of a different pageant organization. It’s a year-long role. Rey reached the top 15 round of the 2018 Miss America pageant in September 2017.

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