Discovering Engineering Saved My Life

Discovering Engineering Saved My Life
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Because a change in direction can be the best thing that ever happened to you.

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For many, high school is a pressure cooker, but things got especially heated for me during my junior year. As the child of Mexican immigrants, I felt I owed it to my parents to make a great life for myself. As it turned out, I had a narrow description of what a “great life” meant; I defined it as one thing and one thing only: becoming a doctor. During my junior year, I was one of 12 from an applicant pool of 600 who landed an internship with the American Cancer Society to do breast cancer research. However, I had not taken university-level biology or chemistry yet, so I was completely in over my head. This experience made me question the career path I always thought of as my destiny. All of a sudden, I didn’t seem cut out for it.

The internship left me feeling a bit lost about my academic identity, as I was no longer interested in pursuing what was once my dream — or so I thought. By the time I graduated as valedictorian from my Chicago public school, I was completely burned out and confused. In fact, things had become so bad that I tried to commit suicide twice during my senior year. One thing was clear: I needed to take a break.

Know that fear isn’t as big as you think.

I told my parents I was not going to college right away. I thought this made sense because my parents were tight on money, so I did not want them paying for college if I did not know what I wanted to pursue. They were taken aback but supported my decision. During my gap year, I helped my mom do janitorial work, which I enjoyed — largely because I didn’t see anyone on the night shift, which gave me time to reevaluate my priorities.

I also tutored grammar school kids in math at La Villita in Chicago. It was from some of my students that I first heard about engineering. The idea of being a problem-solver really resonated with me. However, it was my involvement with a unique program called One Million Degrees that helped solidify engineering as a career option. One Million Degrees provides professional development and advice, as well as financial assistance and tutoring to low-income students like myself. Their objective is to help people like me finish college.

During this time, I came to really rely on my advisors, who empowered me to realize what I was able to accomplish while pursuing my associates degree. This paved the way for me to study electrical engineering at the University of Illinois. Thanks to them, I was the first member of my family to graduate college.

Although my mental health continues to be a work in progress, there are many things to be excited about: I have an internship lined up with Caterpillar for the summer, and my family is supportive of my new career path — which is important to me, as la familia is big in the Hispanic community.

My advice to others is to know that fear isn’t as big as you think. Shake hands with it, get familiar with it. Understand that you cannot necessarily get over all of your fears, but you can confront them with the help of everyone who cares about you and with the support of organizations who have helped others walk the same path before you. I wish I could have realized this earlier in my life, but I am glad I know it now.