The theme of “Don't Ever Tell Me You Can't" an autobiographical non-fiction story, is how a young, immigrant female Filipino engineer overcame the nearly insurmountable obstacles of absolute poverty, gender discrimination, racial prejudices, and language barriers and succeed in the non-traditional profession.
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At the peak of the Viet Nam war, President Lyndon Johnson invites professional engineers from the free world to immigrate to the United States to alleviate the country’s shortage of engineers. Celia Ruiz, then already an established civil engineer and surveyor in the Philippines, responds. She comes by herself, confident that her $300 pocket money and her education are enough to found a new life in the land of opportunity, or so she thinks. When she sets out to look for a civil engineering job, she immediately realizes that being an Asian woman, she is faced with a formidable wall to climb. She is told she can never find a job as an engineer. She braces herself for a long hard fight to be allowed to live the life of an engineer in America, a battle she is determined to win.
Celia traces her strength back to her upbringing by a strong-willed mother and education-conscious father. Her resilience is further developed in engineering school in the late 50’s when females were openly harassed to prevent their advancement in the engineering field. Throughout the story, which spans two decades and two continents, Celia perseveres and wages a lonely but fierce battle against incredible obstacles in the profession. Each time she faces a barrier, she formulates a methodical strategy and, with computer-like precision, she follows the plan until she topples the obstacle. Finally, before age becomes yet another hurdle, Celia finds the way to clear the path to the American Dream of having one’s own business – for her, an engineering company!
The book closes with pointers on how to pursue a dream and make it come true.
Father made no reply. Instead, he looked down at me; his eyes glossed over with disappointment. "Teaching? Journalism? Why those? Take something solid. Get a degree that will earn you a good living-- like engineering. Be a civil engineer."
Civil Engineer! The words rang through my inquisitive mind. My eyes lit up. I had no idea what a civil engineer did but it sounded rather important. A woman civil engineer. I had never heard of one. Suddenly, the glory of victory in the math contest flashed through my mind. You crushed a bunch of boys on their own turf. I remembered how the taste of the heady wine of triumph had filled me with a warm bracing exuberance. I yearned to feel it all over again. The desire impelled me to a firm decision. "That's a great idea!" I exclaimed, brimming with zest. "I want to become a civil engineer." And I clasped the idea to my heart.