My Wabash Story: Ayari Villegas

  • Culture
by Aidan Freeman | May 17, 2023

Life takes us to many different places, and oftentimes in unexpected directions. Ayari Villegas is no exception. Ayari was born in Mexico, but moved to San Fernando Valley, Calif., with her family when she was five years old. After graduating high school, she had her mind set on attending community college. After her high school graduation, her father visited one of his brothers who was engaged in a business venture in Indianapolis. Ayari’s father encouraged her to visit “just to see what she thought” of Indiana. During that time in Lafayette, she met the man who would become her husband. He was visiting temporarily to support a family member. He and Ayari were both from the same city in California and built a connection shortly after. With a seemingly newfound adventure in her life, Ayari decided to stay in Lafayette with her now husband.

“I’m not sure how or why honestly, but we both never moved back to California,” she said. “21 years later, we are still here together!”

She began her Wabash story in March 2012, when she joined part-time for her first shift from a temporary agency. Prior to her Wabash journey, Ayari had worked in retail. In 2010, Ayari and her husband welcomed their third child into their family, a wonderful addition to their lives but one that required Ayari to consider her financial situation.

"We needed to pay bills, and the pay was not great in retail," she said.

With the new addition to her family, Ayari made the decision to quit her retail job to stay home with her daughter for a few years. As finances became difficult, she and her husband found it a challenge to keep up. Ayari needed a dedicated source of income and security and wasn’t keen on returning to retail. Ayari’s neighbor at the time told her about the opportunities available at Wabash. Not long after, Ayari found herself filing for a job with a temp agency "just to see what happens," landing a position working part-time on first shift as a punch operator in DuraPlate.

For Ayari, this was a time of uncertainty, as it was her first time in a factory setting. She had "never imagined working in a factory before," but regardless, she continued exploring different opportunities throughout Wabash and picking up knowledge from her coworkers as she went along. Despite her growing expertise, she was still wary of joining Wabash full-time.

"It was supposed to just be a temporary thing, just to pay bills," she said. "But I enjoyed it! It was different. I really enjoyed the different things that happened, and all the movement and people; knowing that we make a lot of the trailers we see on the highway was pretty great."

During the initial few years, Ayari recalled the moments she spent with the members of her team. She stated that while it wasn’t as busy of an environment and the team was relatively small, everyone was "willing to show [her] different things." She attributes her desire to remain with the company to just how welcoming everyone was. While her initial plan had her at Wabash only for a few years, in due time Ayari found herself at home at Wabash, connecting with her coworkers on a deeper level.

However, it wasn’t always a walk in the park. Ayari mentioned that she had to really step out of her shell to really build those relationships. As she grew in her role as a DuraPlate Operator in 2014, she found that some long-term employees were reluctant to share knowledge and teach new employees. However, she persisted, driven by support from her family, and made a name for herself.

"I think that once they saw that I was willing to work, learn, and pick up things pretty quickly, they started talking to me more and teaching me different things," she said. "But now, it’s completely different. Everyone cross-trains. So, people are doing different jobs constantly."

Ayari continuously sought to learn more, and branch out as much as she could within her department. The more she learned, the more of an asset she became. Her knowledge of departments followed her wherever she went, and she kept learning. She applied for higher positions, bringing the knowledge she had gleaned from her fellow employees and applying it where she could. Ayari spent eight years as a DuraPlate Operator before bidding for her current position. But it wasn’t something that happened overnight. Ayari bid for several positions without success, with those interviewing her claiming that she had a little more to learn. She recalled some of the hardships she faced in those moments, and how she persisted despite multiple rejections, attributing a lot of her success to the support from her family, especially her husband, who joined Wabash eight months after Ayari.

"At the time, a couple supervisors would come up to me and tell me to keep trying different things; keep pursuing," she recalled. "But when I finally got it, it felt really good. It just felt like, ’I know what I need to work on’. Once you get out of where you’re at, you feel like you’re unstuck, and you wonder what else you’re capable of doing."

Today, Ayari is a Process Engineer Technician, assisting in continuous improvement without a single dull day. She has led multiple A3 teams leading to improve overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) in DuraPlate. In addition to these projects, she goes above and beyond to help improve employee morale, a critical part of any company’s culture.

"With our managers, we’re working to improve the morale of our employees. I’m really enjoying helping make a difference and making everyone’s job more enjoyable."

As of this article, Ayari has returned to Purdue University to obtain her bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership. Through the Accelerator by Wabash program, she has been able to go back to school without the financial burden of tuition and fees. With a goal to become an operations manager, she remains incredibly focused and optimistic with a determination to complete her degree.

"Since I graduated high school, I have always wanted to go back to college to continue my education," she said. "I had people that I worked with who told me to give it a shot. So, I began looking into it to see how it went. I was a little hesitant, because it had been so long, but it helped me grow."

We asked Ayari if she had any advice for those looking to get started in their career:

"Don't give up on what you really want and stay focused. Learn from mistakes and persevere through barriers and setbacks. If Wabash is your destination, take advantage of the Accelerator program, develop and grow your skills, as there is always opportunity for growth here. Push your boundaries and get out of your comfort zone. You can put a lot of thoughts in your head, but things don't always go the way you think they might. Keep in mind that your greatest fear may carry your greatest growth."

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