No Turning Back: Electrical and Power Engineering MS Student’s Inspiring Journey to Career – and Personal – Fulfillment

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Growing up in Cuba where she routinely had electricity only four hours a day due to the economic collapse that the island suffered after the Soviet Union fallout, Eleanett Perez Cervera, an electrical and computer engineering master’s student at Northeastern University and IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) ‘21-‘22 Scholar Recipient, grew up determined to pursue a career that would help make the world a better place for current and future generations. 

Eleanett discovered her life’s calling in elementary school when she was given the job of “energy saver,” and became responsible for turning off the lights. 

“I was taught the need to save energy – not just for decreasing the amount of pollution in our environment, but also for helping to reduce the nation's overall energy consumption,” she said. “It was difficult to live in a country that had no electricity during many hours of the day. At a young age, I learned that we, the people, are the ones who have the power to change our behavior, save our planet, and build a better life. My daily struggles kindled an interest in engineering in me because I realized that through research and development, many of the problems affecting humankind can be solved, or at least mitigated.”

Eleanett’s determination to become an engineer would be tested many times before she finally realized her goal and received her undergraduate degree, also from Northeastern, in electrical and computer engineering, in May of this year. 

“I finished high school in Cuba and was accepted to university there, but the day before starting I had to decide to stay or to leave the country and have a free life. I decided to leave,” Eleanett said. 

She first traveled to Argentina, where she spent five years working “mostly menial jobs,” before going to Spain for 12 years and working in a hospital lab that focused on the use of molecular biology in allergy research, before finally making it to the US. She arrived not knowing any English and learned the language within the Peralta Community College District, where she completed the freshman/sophomore-level general requirements needed before transferring to Northeastern University. 

Knowing she wanted to move to the East Coast, Eleanett applied to Boston University, New York University, and Northeastern. She was accepted to all three, and ultimately chose Northeastern. 

When asked what it felt like to be accepted to her top choice university 20 years later than originally envisioned, Eleanett said there are “still no words.” 

“After all these years, I still get goosebumps,” she said. “It was just such a ‘wow’ moment for me.” 

One of the reasons Eleanett chose Northeastern was because of the University’s strong Co-op program; but while the COVID-19 pandemic largely stymied her plans for industry work as a student, her classes on sustainable energy and associated projects served to inspire her future direction in the field, she noted.

“My ambition is to bring reliable green power to people, especially to underserved communities. Having grown up in a country where periodic blackouts were common due to unreliable infrastructure and a lack of energy resources, and the predominant burning of fossil fuels caused air pollution, I am intimately familiar with the toll this takes on the health and wellbeing of people and the prosperity of their nation. Although I would certainly be interested in continuing my education by pursuing a PhD, I believe it will be wiser for me to venture into the world and begin solving challenging problems,” she said. “I have many dreams about my possible futures, and a common theme is to be a leader in the renewable energy field by spearheading efforts to develop and deploy sustainable technologies around the globe.” 

Receiving the IEEE PES scholarship was an important moment of validation for her. 

“I was introduced to IEEE PES by one of my professors and mentors, Dr. Brad Lehman, who encouraged me to apply. I am very excited to be part of this professional community and hope to interact and contribute more in the future. Earning the scholarship served to endorse my work and efforts.” 

In addition to the IEEE PES scholarship, Eleanett has been awarded the National Science Foundation-funded Student Pathways Opening World Energy Sources (S-POWER) scholarship – an initiative of Northeastern University that targets college transfer students from underrepresented minority backgrounds who have an interest in working in the energy field, and which offers research opportunities, mentoring, career development, and education preparation support – as well as a scholarship from Schneider Electric. 

With graduation next May in her sights, Eleanett is just beginning to take stock of all she has achieved as her mother and biggest supporter reminds her to be proud of her accomplishments. 

“My mom tells me all the time, ‘You don’t realize what you have done is something that isn’t easy; this is something you have to be very proud of,’” she said. “I don’t always see it that way, but I am grateful for those who have helped me along the way. Without their support, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” 

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