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Sylvia Acevedo Talks with Roger

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In her middle-grade memoir Path to the Stars, Sylvia Acevedo draws a straight if improbable line from her childhood as a Mexican American girl in New Mexico through a career as a literal rocket scientist to her current post as CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA. She says below that she’s “a very friendly person,” but is also, as I say below, pretty intimidating. It’s quite a combination.

Roger Sutton: What’s it like, running an organization with two and a half million members?

Sylvia Acevedo: You know what? We are really making the world a better place. Everyone’s united around that mission, creating girls of courage, confidence, and character. That’s what we focus on every day, and I’m always thinking about how we can get even more girls to have some of the secret sauce of Girl Scouts.

RS: How do you deal with that scale? I would find it intimidating to walk into work, if I knew that many people were counting on me.

SA: I love it. It energizes me. And that’s where having the technical background that I have is also really helpful.

RS: What do you think was in your personality as a child that led you to such success in the Girl Scouts? You took to it like a duck to water.

SA: I think all kids have potential, but what Girl Scouts did was give me the tools that really tapped into my potential and helped develop it. I like to say if I hadn’t been in Girl Scouts, I’d probably be the best Walmart manager in Las Cruces, New Mexico, or the best bank manager. I probably would have had drive, but wouldn’t have known how to set big goals, understand how to break them down, understand how to create opportunities. If I hadn’t learned those lessons until much later in life — and if, by that time, I hadn’t already taken algebra or some science classes — then I would have had a lot fewer opportunities. But luckily, because of Girl Scouts, I was able to learn how to project-manage, learn how to have confidence in my ability to do science and math, at a time when I could then begin accumulating and building on those skills. That gave me so many more choices and opportunities.

RS: But you brought the drive to it.

SA: Well, the drive helped, no question. But I probably would have been having a lot of drive against a brick wall, instead of knowing how to get around the wall.

RS: You sound like you’re fairly intimidating. And I mean that as a compliment.

SA: Thank you for saying that. I don’t think of myself that way. I think of myself as a very friendly person.

RS: I’ve noticed in the early chapters of your book that you talk about reading the Childhood of Famous Americans series. You’re not the first author I’ve interviewed who has attributed his or her career choices as an adult to reading books in that series.

SA: That’s interesting, especially for me — I didn’t have very many role models, and Clara Barton, wow. She did amazing things. I read that book so many times, my mother could recite it from memory.

RS: The one I loved was Lotta Crabtree, the little girl who danced for gold nuggets among the miners. (I don’t know what that says about me.) But those books are completely out of fashion now. They’re still published, but librarians don’t approve of them because there’s so much fictionalization.

SA: Oh, yeah. That’s unfortunate.

RS: In writing your own story, how much was in your memory and how much did you have to consult other family members and the historical record to remember what was going on?

SA: Quite a bit of it was in my own memory. The more you talk to people about it, it’s sort of like you’re going down those old neuron roads in your brain and connecting them again. Sometimes the memories would come back with so much emotional impact, it was like I was reliving them. That happened to me so many times while writing the book — I would be talking to my brothers, my aunts, my cousins about something that happened, and then all of a sudden it would be as though I were there. Unfortunately, one of the most vivid cases of that was remembering my mom running down the street, banging on doors, with my sister [stricken with meningitis] limp in her arms. That section of the book still gets me — I feel that emotion again, that fear, that overwhelmingness. This out-of-control thing was happening, and it was bad. Wow, that was so scary.

RS: I know from the afterword that your sister has passed away, but I was curious as to what became of her in life after your childhood.

SA: Laura ended up holding a job longer than any of her siblings had held a job at any one place. She worked at the grocery store and helped with the checkout counter. She was also a Special Olympian, and was selected to represent the United States in the Winter Olympics. She earned a bronze in speed skating — coming from the desert, that was a weird thing! And she was a Girl Scout as well. She died, sadly, of breast cancer. But she lived a full life, and was very productive.

RS: And you really did put us with her and you in those very scary scenes.

SA: Yeah, it was really awful. And everything changed. The book helped me think about what might have been different if Laura had never gotten sick. What if we had stayed in that neighborhood? I would not have had the Girl Scouts. Maybe I would never have learned how to create opportunity. Maybe I wouldn’t have taken science and math. I would have had a different career track completely.

RS: We can never know what those circumstances are going to do, right? You’re a scientist; you understand this better than I do. We can’t look at the alternatives, because they don’t exist. There’s nothing to serve as a control.

SA: Right.

RS: Is rocket science as hard as everybody says?

SA: Yes. I worked on two missions. I analyzed a ton of data that was streaming back from the Voyager 2 spacecraft, which passed by Jupiter. The other project I worked on was called, at the time, Solar Polar Solar Probe. It was later called the Parker Solar Probe, and it has just recently launched. But I was working on that decades ago, and it was really hard. We were thinking we’ve never had a spacecraft that close to the sun, so what do we have to consider? There are so many things you have to think about. First of all, when could you possibly launch a spacecraft so you’d have enough fuel to get into the orbit of the sun? Then you have to consider wind, high temperatures, cold temperatures, no gravity, all these other factors — being hit by meteors, solar flares. We didn’t even have materials that could withstand flying four million miles close to the sun.

RS: What do you think rocket science brought to your job now as the CEO of the Girl Scouts?

SA: Back to your first question, how does it feel managing an organization of two and a half million: scale doesn’t daunt me. When you’re working with objects in the universe, scale is infinite.

RS: We’re seeing a lot of emphasis now in children’s book publishing on STEM, and particularly STEM for young girls. Do you see a gender difference between how boys and girls achieve in math-related areas?

SA: Of course there are always going to be some girls who are really interested in STEM the way it is traditionally taught, but there are others who are most interested in ways of helping people. In the last two years in Girl Scouts we have begun offering more badges and journeys than we have in our 106-year history, and a huge number of them are related to STEM. We do that in a way that resonates with girls. For example, how do you teach five- and six-year-old Daisy Girl Scouts about coding in a way that’s relevant to them? We talk to subject matter experts, and then we distill what they tell us, and then put it in a way that is relevant to the majority of girls. They say machine language is 0 1, on off, you have to bring down all instructions into that 0 1. You say that to a five-year-old girl, she’s looking somewhere else, not paying attention.

RS: You say it to me, I’ll do the same thing.

SA: Okay, so what we do instead is we curate that information and put our Girl Scout leadership experience around it. A girl comes to a Girl Scout event, and we have beads in three colors. One of the colors represents a zero. The other color represents a one. And then the other color is just a spacer. So we give girls string, and we say, “Make your bracelet with your initials,” and we show them the alphabet expressed in 0 1. Within fifteen minutes, they’ve figured it out. The next thing they say is, “Can I have a longer string? I want to put my whole name in the beads.” And then some of them want to string a sentence together. They’re coding. They have learned code. And now they’re interested, because they’re like, “That’s coding? That’s easy. I just have to figure out how to express this information in a 0 1, yellow, blue bead.”

RS: You’re already losing me with the math here.

SA: Okay. Networking is another one. How do you teach young girls networking? You can say, “It’s all these protocol levels, and the first physical layer.” Instead we say, “Sit in a circle. Here’s a ball of yarn. Pass it to one another.” At the end of ten minutes, the yarn has gotten all crisscrossed all over the place. We say, “That’s a network.” And they go, “Oh! That’s a network.” That’s our expertise. We’re experts in how girls learn, so we’re doing a lot of stuff in a way that’s relevant to them, around issues they care about.

RS: When you’re looking at new areas to develop badges in, are the girls themselves part of that process?

SA: Oh my goodness. We were actually testing a bunch of badges over a year ago, and we said, “What other things do you want to learn about?” Overwhelmingly, girls said, “We want to know how to keep ourselves safe online. Help us be experts at protecting ourselves online.” So that’s where our cybersecurity badges came from. It was all girl-led.

RS: What value do you see in our egalitarian era of making a space that is definitely girls-only?

SA: There’s so much data on this, especially if you’re trying to get girls to learn a non-traditional topic such as STEM. That girls-only space where she can try and try and fail and try again, where she actually gets called on when she raises her hand, she gets time and space on the equipment, and she doesn’t have to get it right the first time, she can keep having that trial and error. In a co-ed space, this doesn’t happen. Overwhelmingly in class girls still don’t get called on as much as boys get called on. When they try something, especially if it’s a non-traditionally “girl” thing, if the first time they try it they’re not good at it, people go, “That’s not for you, because you aren’t good at it.” In that girls-only space, she gets the opportunity to try and try again. That’s why overwhelmingly the number of girls who study STEM and go on to pursue careers in it have usually learned it in a single-gender environment.

RS: Oh, that’s interesting.

SA: Did you know almost every female American astronaut that’s ever been in space was a Girl Scout?

RS: So what’s the cause and effect here, scientist?

SA: We’ve always had science badges. We also teach you a lot about project management. Encouraging confidence was an important part. And teaching the importance of being prepared. You can take on bigger risks if you’re prepared, and we really teach girls how to be prepared. One of the riskiest things you can be is an astronaut, so I’m not surprised they’re disproportionately Girl Scouts.

RS: Good for them. Last question. I said on Facebook this morning that I was going to be interviewing you, and I was taking bets on what your favorite cookie is.

SA: Thin Mints. Sometimes just opening up a bag and smelling the mint calms me down. It’s my aromatherapy.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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