Like lots of kids everywhere, Cristina Diaz was enchanted by the magic of Disneyland and Walt Disney World, memories of which she's treasured through the years.
She also cherished visiting the Field Museum in Chicago, where her family attended "behind the scenes" members-only events that gave her a glimpse into how exhibits are created.
Now, as a 21-year-old college senior, Cristina has turned those early experiences into a passion for design, a field in which she's already forging a successful path.
Cristina, a native of Aurora, was on a three-person team from Iowa State University that took first place at Walt Disney Imagineering's 26th Imaginations design competition in January. She also was an intern last summer at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where she helped design exhibitions of Native American artists.
Those who know her say Cristina has a bright future in the field.
Cristina has a deep curiosity of the world around her, and has proved herself as a leader who can manage small- and large-scale projects with attention to detail and time management, said Cigdem T. Akkurt, associate professor of interior design at Iowa State. Cristina also takes criticism gratefully, she said.
"She is a perceptive and dependable young designer," Akkurt said. "Her calm disposition allows her to work steadily under pressure."
Alvaro Amat, Cristina's supervisor at the Field Museum, echoed those words.
"Cristina is a talented designer and fabulous problem-solver, with a creative mind and incredible leadership skills," he said.
She collaborated creatively with the artists and other team members within budget and time limitations, and always brought a fresh perspective and positive attitude, he said.
"I believe that the fabulous team dynamic established in the team was, in a big way, a result of her work ethic and fantastic can-do attitude throughout the process," Amat said. "No challenge seemed to shake her joyful confidence, capacity to listen and to find solutions in collaboration."
While she has always aimed to excel, Cristina said, she's overall a fairly relaxed person who tries not to worry too much about things.
"I try to take things step by step and just be very organized. I try to just be humble and grateful of the experiences that I've had," she said.
"I'm not really actually a very competitive person. I just try to do the best that I can and I just hope that my hard work pays off in the end, and a lot of time it does."
Cristina first displayed her penchant for interior design as a little girl who arranged and rearranged miniature furniture in her doll house. As she got older, she took to computer games such as "The Sims" and programs on HGTV that had interior design components.
"Usually whatever I design, I want to make it something that everyone can enjoy, making it accessible for people of all abilities," she said. "Maybe it doesn't have to be necessarily a memorable experience, but a pleasant experience for them. I want them to be able to enjoy it, and that they can accomplish the thing they set out to do in that space."
She graduated from Waubonsie Valley High School in 2013, where she took interior design and drafting, and did an independent study in architecture. She picked Iowa State -- which gave her a full scholarship -- because her older brother, Pablo, was a student there. The two overlapped by a year.
Among the most meaningful things she's done, Cristina said, was serving as a cohort -- or representative -- for Iowa State at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity last summer. She and others will give a presentation next month at their school about what they learned.
"My biggest take-away was just that I wasn't aware of a lot of issues, even though I am a Latina student. I think because I have a lot of privilege, I grew up in Illinois and I have sort of a white appearance but I do come from a Latino family," she said. "I think I just didn't realize how many issues other people are experiencing, and I need to educate myself more about that."
Her parents have given her motivation over the years, Cristina said. They have known each other since elementary school in Puerto Rico, came to the mainland to pursue master's degrees and decided to stay to afford their children more opportunities, she said. Her father, Manuel, is an engineer, and her mother, Nelida, is a bilingual teacher at Olney C. Allen Elementary School in Aurora.
"My parents have been really encouraging and supportive the whole time," she said, "encouraging me to do things even though I might have been nervous or scared at first. They are the main ones who encouraged me to keep going and try new things."
Case in point -- the Walt Disney Imagineering competition.
Things got tough after she started to work on the project because she was busy with class work, but her parents encouraged her to keep going and stay focused, she said.
The competition gives students visibility and a chance to score an internship -- still to be announced -- with the company, but their works don't necessarily become real-life projects.
Cristina's team, which included Joshua Kurnia and Alexander Doppenberg, presented a design called "Hourglass." It features heated benches integrated with nature map projection and geothermal pods. The goal is to allow park guests to take a leisurely, relaxing break, she said. The hourglass shape turned on its side symbolizes the stoppage of time.
She'd love to have a career in themed entertainment design, which is a very narrow and competitive field, she said.
"When I was a kid, I used to go to Disney parks all the time," she said, explaining she has family in Florida. "It's very wonderful memories for me, and I want to make those memories real for other people as well, going into that field. I just want to make people happy with the spaces I design."
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