The 32-year-old alumna Karen Abarca, who has worked on the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb), is a communication systems engineer at Northrop Grumman. But Abarca’s path to a career in engineering had some twists and turns along the way.
Growing up in Santa Ana, she started taking classes at SAC in 2007 as a high school junior through the Puente Program, which allowed her to earn college credits. But when she found herself failing chemistry and feeling disillusioned, she temporarily turned her back on science and focused on her sewing skills.
“Sewing was easy for me,” Abarca said, “I grew up sewing.”
She attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, earning her first associate degree, and then worked in the entertainment and fashion industry making costumes for music videos and films. “It was a quick and fast way for me to make money,” Abarca said.
After a few years working in costume design, Abarca decided she needed a change. “I didn’t see myself being 50 and still caring about clothes and fashion,” she added.
She returned to SAC in 2015 to follow her childhood dream of becoming a scientist, joining the MESA (Mathematic Engineering, Science, Achievement) Program, which provides resources to students in math, computer science, engineering, and science so they can transfer to four-year institutions as majors in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
Abarca credits MESA with helping her succeed as a burgeoning engineer. “That really helped me, because I was able to go to conferences, get internships, and apply for scholarships,” she said.
Abarca ultimately graduated from SAC with six AA degrees in 2018 and transferred to California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), where she earned a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering in 2020.
While at CSULB, Abarca founded her own club through the International Society of Automation (ISA). As president she collaborated with other students practicing engineering fundamentals and networked with representatives from top engineering firms. After being recruited by Raytheon and other companies, she accepted a job offer from Northrop Grumman even before she graduated.
Karen Abarca (pictured) earned a master's degree in electrical engineering in 2023
Once at Northrop Grumman, Abarca worked on the James Webb Space Telescope, where she tested materials and potential contaminated areas during the final stages of integration and test in preparation for launch. She joined the local boards of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). She also entered a master’s program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in electrical engineering.
“I worked on Webb and it is literally in space now, a million miles away,” she said, pausing to take in the magnitude of the achievement.
Abarca earned her master’s degree from UCLA in 2023 and now serves as the tours chair for SWE Los Angeles, which brings her back to SAC and other community colleges, where she shares her educational and career journey with aspiring engineers.
“I tell people, ‘You can do it. Don’t compare yourself to others. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday. Plan out your goals and track your progress,’” she said.
Her advice for prospective engineers and scientists: “Be comfortable with failure. It is part of learning and growing. You have to be okay with being told no.”
She also encourages aspiring engineers to embrace the idea of teamwork. “I didn’t think I could become an engineer because I didn’t think I could build a spacecraft by myself,” she said. “But I realized no one does that. We work with complex systems that get broken down into workable problems and in the end, every part of the design has to work together. It is teamwork.”