Elementary school lessons on Mars, Jupiter and Neptune ignited Lizeth Sanchez Zamudio’s curiosity about humans’ place in the universe. In high school, she was shy and felt like she had little direction, but once she got to San Diego State University, she knew she had to make a change.

The astronomy major learned to try new things by joining the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program, which prepares low-income and first-generation college students to succeed in STEM careers through academic support, networking, leadership development and more.

“Something I always say to myself that has helped me move out of my comfort zone is to think that we are just a small part of the universe! We are all in the same place, so trying new things is not as scary as it seems,” Sanchez Zamudio said. “I learned from MESA that you have to keep trying; failing doesn’t mean you’re a bad engineer or scientist, it means you’re learning.”

She credits Thelma Chavez, the sciences coordinator for MESA, as being her much-needed guide for all things academic and extracurricular and the program as a whole for being her support group. With scholarships from MESA and the San Diego Astronomy Association, Sanchez Zamudio is excited to start researching how galaxies form with astronomy professor Kate Rubin.

Encouragement from Chavez also helped Sanchez Zamudio fulfill a lifelong desire to learn martial arts. Her older sister and parents were surprised that she took the leap, but now she enjoys teaching her fellow martial artists about the DART asteroid targeting and upcoming NASA Artemis missions between movement drills.

“Without astronomy and ways to research our galaxy, we wouldn’t know where we are or what’s coming,” Sanchez Zamudio said.

What’s coming next for her? She hopes to expand her comfort zone internationally by studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea where she will trade her go-to home-cooked meal of albóndigas for tteokbokki, a spicy rice cake dish.

Hometown Hustler

Computer science major and MESA student Emily Zakkak found out that she received a MESA scholarship at the perfect time. Her father had recently undergone open heart surgery and stopped working, so Zakkak’s tutoring job was the only income helping to pay the family bills. 

With the financial support provided by Qualcomm, she doesn’t have to worry as much about paying for her trolley commute from El Cajon and she can get a new computer — essential for completing her homework and practicing ethical hacking techniques for the SDSU Cyber Defense Team.


Computer science major and MESA student Emily Zakkak with her father at the MESA Scholarship Reception at SDSU. (Courtesy photo) 

Zakkak is also branching out into another one of MESA’s ‘high impact experiences.’ Motivated by the people she’s known who have fallen victim to phishing scams and hacking, she will try her hand at cyber security research in information systems professor Kaveh Abhari’s Digital Innovation Lab.

This drive to put in as much effort as she can while helping others stems from her parents immigrating from Jordan and Iraq with only a few hundred dollars in their pockets.

“I want to help us all have a better life; I want to get rid of the survival mentality. I want to thrive,” Zakkak said. “I wouldn’t have that motivation in life if I didn’t have my family.”

That family-first orientation and the networking tips she gained from MESA collided for good at a cousin’s birthday party, where Zakkak met a Qualcomm engineer who was willing to help get her resume in front of a manager at the company.

“The way you hold yourself when you talk to people is everything. People really want you to be successful; you just have to go after it and show you want it.”

Originally published on SDSU NewsCenter