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RSA’s Brilliant Minds: Salma Benitez

Updated: Jun 28

When you need something done right, you better call Sal(ma).


Her ability to keep projects on time and on budget across concept and geographical regions is unsurprising considering she is multi-lingual, enjoys rock climbing, and aerial silk dancing in her spare time.


Salma Benitez is an aerospace engineer at RSA who has taken on numerous project management roles and currently serves as a project manager for RSA’s lunar mission.


Salma and the RSA team visit Diddly Squat Farm in the UK.


While beneficial as an engineer, her skeptical nature almost kept her from joining RSA when she found out her first week would be in Paris and London and her initial thought was ‘is this too good to be true or is it a kidney-harvesting scheme?’


Climb

Born and raised in Mexico City, Benitez’s curious nature led her to explore a variety of subjects.


“My parents always invested in my education, so I was always into exploring everything around me,” Benitez said. “They took me to museums and encouraged me to learn English and French while I was in school.”


She attended smaller, private schools which provided more hands-on education and one-on-one time with her teachers.


“I always had really incredible professors around me that were so inspiring,” she said. “We were a small group of students, so it was easier to have time with the professors and everyone was devoted to their work.”


Benitez with other students from Mexico during the International Festival at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.


Initially, she thought she wanted to be a doctor, but one museum trip would change that.


“My parents really encouraged me wanting to become a doctor and took me to a plasticized bodies exhibit, where they show open bodies,” she said. “I was seven at the time and the first thing I saw was the nervous system of a seven-year-old on display. I looked at that and I said ‘yeah, I don’t want to do this.’”


In Mexico, students take an aptitude test during their senior year of high school to guide their college decisions and coursework. Benitez scored strongest in the Mathematics and Physics and the Arts and Humanities categories. A gut feeling and some encouragement from her parents led her to pursue her love for Math.


“I still didn’t know what I wanted to do in college,” she said. “One day we had an International College Fair and I met Andy, a recruiter from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Before that I never really thought about how planes were built but it sounded very fun and like something I would like to do.”


Balance


Benitez searched for colleges in Mexico offering aerospace engineering but couldn’t find any at the time. So, she left her comfort zone and headed to the United States. She attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Arizona campus and received a Presidential Scholarship for high-achieving students.


“Coming from a smaller classroom environment, it felt gigantic,” she said. “Being from a different country also forced me to become extroverted.”


She joined Alpha Sigma Tau, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and the International Student Association to meet new people and expand her worldview.


Benitez with other SWE members from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at the 2019 Women in Engineering Conference.


“With SWE we would go to conventions and learn how to network and be professional,” she said. “Engineers from different companies would come and speak to us about what their day-to-day looks like to show us what life might look like after graduation. The International Student Association would host a fair in the Spring, and we would cook, dress in traditional clothing, and dance. It was nice to have all that diversity in one place and share our cultures.”


Academically, Benitez specialized in aeronautics and received a minor in psychology.


“The aerospace program was 80% male,” Benitez said. “I was one of the few women in the program, so I decided to take a minor in psychology to explore a different environment.”


Even though she loved the academic challenges and social life college provided, Benitez was burnt out when she graduated with her bachelor’s in aerospace engineering.


Lock


Benitez struggled to find employment in the U.S. after graduation due to her immigration status.


“I applied to a bunch of openings I was qualified for, but because I was an international student I needed a sponsored visa and didn’t get any interviews,” she said. “It was draining applying for things and watching people who graduated with me get jobs so quickly.”


Shortly after, the pandemic began, and all her plans came to a screeching halt. However, Benitez used this time to reconnect with her family and explore her spirituality and the hobbies she had left behind while away at school.


“I started practicing aerial silks, aerial hoop dancing, and some yoga,” she said. “I used that time to be more mindful of my body and it was nice to slow down for a bit after college.”


Benitez practices aerial silks.


She also continues her education, receiving a certification as a project officer. When she was ready to swing back into the workforce, Benitez started working as an executive assistant at a construction company in Mexico. However, her desire was still to work in aerospace in the U.S.


Soar


In 2023, Benitez moved to Washington, D.C., and continued her job search. She wasn’t expecting much when she added her resume to the pile during the annual Spaceball event at Nationals Stadium.


“I had already been super discouraged applying for jobs, but my husband encouraged me to submit anyway,” she said. “Shortly after on July 5 I got a call for an interview with RSA.”


Benitez and her husband, Zane, disguised as Wario and Waluigi, pose in front of ERAU's Lockheed F-104N Starfighter.


In typical RSA interview style, Benitez was welcomed to participate as part of the team during her interview.


“There were ten people there and they had me take a seat in the middle and just started having a conversation for about an hour,” she said. “Everyone was so great and I was very happy when they made me an offer the next day.”


Her favorite thing about working at RSA is the people and the ability to learn from her peers.


“Everyone is incredibly smart and approachable and no one is narcissistic,” she said. “I’ve been able to shadow Josh from the very beginning and it’s been an incredible opportunity to learn from him.”


A natural leader, Benitez continues to hone her skills as a project manager at RSA and is enrolled in an advanced leadership program at the University of California, Los Angeles.


Benitez participates in the Order of the Engineer Ceremony.


She hopes to become a professor one day and has some advice for anyone thinking about pursuing a career in engineering.


"It takes dedication, and you have to be passionate about it," she said. "Don’t do the thing that comes easiest to you if you’re passionate about something else, even if it is more challenging."

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