DAHLGREN, Va. - Isha Renta watched as Hurricane Hugo tracked toward Puerto Rico in 1989 and after all the devastation, wondered how it happened.
"I remember asking myself, at such a young age, what I could do to help my people and reduce the damage," said Renta.
That's when Renta — a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) meteorologist — started dreaming of becoming a meteorologist.
She pursued her dream by studying mathematics at the University of Puerto Rico, graduating with a bachelor's degree. Then Renta studied meteorology at Howard University, receiving her master's degree in Atmospheric Sciences. Now, she supports the national weather service mission to save life and property, while working on a doctoral degree in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Maryland.
"They say that you choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life," said Renta, speaking at the Hispanic Heritage Observance held at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), Oct. 7. "Those who know me are aware that I'm always talking about what's going on with the weather and fascinated about the atmosphere and its phenomena."
Renta joined local Navy leaders to celebrate Hispanic Heritage with Dahlgren personnel at the University of Mary Washington Dahlgren campus.
With a national theme of "Hispanic Americans: Energizing Our Nation's Diversity," the observance celebrated the histories, cultures, and contributions of Americans who trace their roots to Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
"Hispanic Americans have served our nation throughout our history and fought at sea in every American war," said Capt. Mary Feinburg, commanding officer, Naval Support Activity South Potomac. "Their roles have included seamen, 4-star admirals, boatswains mates, corpsmen, fighter pilots, doctors, nuclear engineers, policy makers - and of course, meteorologists."
Renta then discussed with the audience another, cultural milestone she was able to realize. The NOAA meteorologist achieved her cultural dream by founding Semilla Cultural (Cultural Seed), a non-profit organization dedicated to cultivating a community that embraces diversity by educating, promoting and disseminating Puerto Rican culture and traditions.
The Dahlgren audience enjoyed the "Bomba" music and dance performed by Renta and her Semilla Cultural volunteers - which include NSWCDD scientists and engineers.
Renta started the organization in 2014 to teach and perform traditional Puerto Rican musical genres while educating the community about historical events that shaped the music.
Since Semilla Cultural's humble beginning in Renta's basement, its volunteers have been engaged in a whirlwind of public and private classes, workshops, and performances to bring cultural awareness to the state of Virginia.
Recently, the group was invited by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to perform in Washington D.C. Semilla Cultural's performance at the Sept. 27 extravaganza streamed live over the internet and "made my cultural dream come true," said Renta.
"In 21 months, it has been a great adventure," she added. "It has not been easy and it's been overwhelming sometimes . but when I saw what happened at the Kennedy Center, I said 'yes, it's worth it.'"
Renta — a former NSWCDD employee — and the audience agreed that Dahlgren's Hispanic Heritage event was informative and worthwhile.
"I have personally received rave feedback," said Eunice Mercado, NSWCDD Hispanic employment program manager. "The performers all showcased their culture, music and dance and the appreciation of it was evidenced by the overwhelmingly positive response from everyone who attended."
Renta explained her science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) + arts = STEAM formula for the audience.
"I'm a very strong advocate of STEM and a very strong advocate of arts," said the meteorologist. "STEM gives you critical thinking, problem solving, persistence, collaboration, and curiosity. Arts give you social development and the creativity you need for problem solving, academic performance and critical thinking. The arts also give you intellectual development for your curiosity and out of the box thinking for the problem solving part of STEM. They are not mutually exclusive - they actually go together. And when they go together, you get magic."
Renta applies this STEAM magic at outreach events from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Fredericksburg, Va., where she teaches students about the "wonders of weather" and keeping their homes safe during hurricanes.
"You can be passionate about science and the arts without sacrificing either one," said Mercado. "Many of us think that it's too risky to follow our dreams, but Isha opened our eyes to other possibilities. It takes magic to achieve everything she has done so early in her career. But as Isha said, it is the combination of STEM and the arts which creates that magic - also known as STEAM. Those final remarks were very welcomed by the audience. In my opinion they were the perfect ending to summarize how the passion and dedication of Hispanics have come to ignite our nation's diversity."
Hispanic Heritage Month first started in 1968 as National Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.
The date of Sept. 15 is significant because it is the Independence Day for five Latin American countries: Costa Rica; El Salvador; Guatemala; Honduras; and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days Sept. 16 and Sept. 18 respectively.
Today nearly 70,000 Sailors and civilians of Hispanic heritage are serving in the Navy, making up approximately 11 percent of the Navy's active, Reserve and civilian forces.
Semilla Cultural's Kennedy Center performance can be viewed via this link: http://www.kennedy-center.org/explorer/videos/?id=M6491.
Link to the Semilla Cultural Facebook page: >https://www.facebook.com/semillacultural.
NSWCDD, a Naval Sea Systems Command warfare center division, is a premier research and development center that serves as a specialty site for weapon system integration. The command's unique ability to rapidly introduce new technology into complex warfighting systems is based on its longstanding competencies in science and technology, research and development, and test and evaluation.