Former Student Shayla Rivera On Her Journey From NASA To Stand-up Comedy
What do you get when you cross a Puerto Rican mother, a rocket scientist, a stand-up comedian and an Aggie? You get former Texas A&M student Shayla Rivera, who shares her funny and fascinating journey from NASA to stand-up comedy, and gives insights into her life as a Latina.
“I didn’t know I was a Latina until I arrived in the U.S. and everyone told me,” says Rivera, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and moved to the states to attend Texas A&M. “I know, I know,” she laughs when admitting she now lives in Austin. “But I am ALWAYS proud to announce that I am an Aggie!”
Rivera studied aerospace engineering at Texas A&M – she graduated in 1983 – and announces on her website funnyrocketscientist.com, “I Really Am A Total Geek.”
Maybe so, but her former job at NASA had “cool” written all over it. “I worked for the Space Shuttle and Space Station contracts, and a year working with the Apache Helicopter night vision system,” she explains. “Working for the space program was an amazing experience. I learned a lot about science and I also learned about myself and just how capable I could be. Plus it’s always cool to tell someone I’m rocket scientist!”
Today Rivera is a full-time stand-up comedian and speaker; so just how does someone go from rocket scientist to stand-up comedy?
“Practice, practice, practice,” she jokes. “Actually the best method to live your life to the fullest is to pay attention to yourself and what that self is saying to you. Then take steps in the direction you feel drawn to go. Suffice it to say I didn’t become a stand-up comedian right after NASA — I took a turn into technical sales, followed by years in corporate trainings for stress management and motivational speaking. That’s when people would tell me ‘You should be a comedian!’ After finally giving comedy a shot, it stuck.”
Rivera says she talks about her Puerto Rican roots in her comedy routines, but that it’s not the sole focus of her act. “I do talk about what it is like to be a Latino woman, as well as making observations from a Latino woman point of view,” she notes. “However, I will say that that is not my only reference.”
She says when she started in comedy she didn’t expect that being a Latina would be a hindrance, but found it can, at times, be an uphill battle due to the narrow-mindedness of some.
“When I first moved to Los Angeles I was immediately well-received and started having meetings with the networks for my own show,” she recalls. “One of the first meetings I had, I made my pitch for a show about a Puerto Rican woman working for NASA (me) and how funny the whole ‘good-ol’-boy’ environment was. And they all loved it and laughed, however, at the end of the meeting one of these executives kind of sat back and said, ‘But a Puerto Rican woman working for NASA is just not believable.’ To which I replied, ‘But a genie in a bottle with an astronaut is believable?’ (referring to the hit ‘60s sitcom I Dream Of Jeannie).
“That was my first big insight into the narrow-mindedness often found in Hollywood,” she continues. “Now Latinas have been promoted to playing nannies and mothers, and not just maids. However, rocket scientists — well not so much yet, but I remain in hot pursuit.”
Rivera notes she’s seen strides as well for women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). “When I graduated, there were only two women in my class. Now I attend many conferences where the number of women in STEM and engineering fields rivals that of men,” she says, adding, “The new breed of female engineers are bold and cutting-edge, and I am very excited to see how we will change the world, because we will.”
Rivera says the growth in America’s Latino population (the Latino electorate is projected to double by 2030) will bring many positive results as more voices and points of view will have to be taken into consideration. “The best way to have comprehensive change that can affect everyone in a positive way is to be individuals and to respect each other’s views,” she asserts.
Rivera says her biggest desire for Latinos is “that we become a force that speaks out as a well-informed voice. To continue our education, to build businesses and lives, while always remembering our wonderful roots.”
Rivera visited Texas A&M over the weekend to speak at the Student Conference On Latino Affairs (SCOLA), sponsored by the MSC Committee for the Awareness of Mexican American Culture (CAMAC).