A photo of a woman wearing a graduation cap and gown
Lineth Perez moved to Richmond in 2021 to advance her studies after receiving her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in Colombia. Having just completed her master’s degree at VCU, she is already on the path to a Ph.D. (Courtesy photo)

Class of 2024: Engineering student Lineth Perez saw a land of opportunity in the U.S. – and seized the opportunity at VCU

Learning the language and earning a scholarship, Colombia native completes her master’s degree and is now working toward her Ph.D.

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Americans might not blink at the thought of a woman engineer, but for Lineth Perez, it’s a big deal. And for a woman in her native Colombia to receive a scholarship to even study engineering? That’s virtually unheard of.

But Perez wanted to study engineering since 10th grade. Her father and mother worked in the petroleum industry, as an industrial engineer and an inspector, respectively. Perez met one of her father’s partners — a female mechanical engineer — and couldn’t stop asking questions.

“I wanted to be her,” Perez said. “I was so excited, because in Colombia they give you the side eye if you say you are a mechanical engineer and you’re a girl.”

It all feels like destiny to Perez. She received a scholarship to study at Virginia Commonwealth University, and she graduates this month with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

“In Colombia, most awards for mechanical engineering are for men,” Perez said. “Here it’s impossible to have that problem. So that’s nice.”

And she isn’t done. She already is enrolled and taking courses in the VCU College of Engineering’s Ph.D. program.

Perez moved to Richmond in 2021 to advance her studies after receiving her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in Colombia. Not knowing any English, she was lonely and homesick. She questioned continuing her education here, but her host family supported her and made her feel comfortable.

“My host family said, ‘We are here for you,’” Perez said. “God gave me these angels in my life. I had another family, and I didn’t feel alone here.”

After hunkering down to learn English, Perez applied to VCU. Once accepted, she applied for — and won — a scholarship.    

At VCU, the first person to extend a hand to Perez was professor Karla Mossi, Ph.D., graduate program director in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering. She and Perez’s advisor, associate professor Hong Zhao, Ph.D., were supportive and understanding of what Perez was going through as a stranger in a strange land.

“They are two people that know a lot, they have a lot of knowledge, and they taught me a lot,” Perez said. “And they’re women. And I know that is not a big thing here, but because we are … from different countries — Karla Mossi is from Honduras — she knows how difficult it is for women in this field. Dr. Zhou is from China, and she came here for better opportunities. So I’m comfortable with them because they went through similar situations as me.”

Perez also made friends with fellow students from around the world.

“I have friends from Honduras, Venezuela, India and Iran,” she said. “I didn’t want to feel weird because I still have some problems with my English. I didn’t want to feel judged. [VCU is] always open to new cultures. That helped me a lot.”

Reflecting on her adjustment and growth in Richmond, Perez is proud of all she has accomplished so far.

“I came here almost three years ago but with no English, and now I’ve been studying in a post-grad program for two years,” she said. “It was so difficult. The first month here was horrible and such a pain because I couldn’t communicate. It sounds so silly, but that’s one of my proudest things.

“The other thing is my friends that I have at VCU,” Perez added. “When I started meeting people and … had this little social life again, I was so happy. Because one of the things that helps you a lot when you’re far away from your people is having a social life here.”