Learning About College The Hard Way - Joseph Gomez
I couldn't believe it! It turned on. It took me an entire year to build a radio from scratch. It was music to my ears, literally, that allowed me to take in a moment that I knew was important. I was always intrigued by the thought that we could drive around in a car and listen to live radio wirelessly. Antennas receive radio frequencies from satellites, right, but how? And how come nobody else seems to care about how that works? In high school and early on as university student I was intrigued by math, wireless communication, and electricity, but had no idea how to turn those curiosities and interests into a career. I really thought that high school was a breeze, but my first year as a university student was like a punch in the face. I had to learn the hard way that good grades in high school were not good enough. I failed and made mistakes before I could figure out how to really understand and effectively use my own potential to become an engineer.
I’ll start with what I did right in high school. First, I cared about my grades. I wanted to do well. I knew that my parents were working hard to put me through a private school. There sacrifice did not go unnoticed. My father worked in a factory assembling electrical transformers, while my mother supported our by selling cosmetic and household products. Their income did not amount to a lot, but just enough to have all the important things for my younger brother and me. We grew up in a humble home. Our parents worked fairs at my high school as volunteers to contribute to tuition because financial aid was not enough. I cared about school because I knew that pursing higher education was a good way to obtain financial security, which was something we didn't have growing up. Caring about school sounds easy, but very difficult to do in high school. I can clearly see that many of my peers that were not doing well simply didn't care about school. Of course there are other factors, but not looking for value in what was being taught appeared to clearly lead to many other issues. It is very likely that viewing school as pointless made studying an afterthought, dismissing homework and daydreaming during class easy to do.
What also helped me significantly was that I wasn't lazy. I think its way too easy and comfortable to slack off and leave important things for later. And of course later becomes an effortless habit that is painless to keep. I kept tasks simple. If I had eight assignments for a particular class, I simply planned on completed them. I paid attention to due dates, worked on them, and turned them in. It took paying attention during class to be clear on what was expected for assignments and exams. A particular strategy that I had was trying to figure out exam questions from the lectures or homework assignments. Paying attention sounds so easy, but so difficult to do because distractions can seem so much more interesting. Dedicating time and effort to paying attention and doing my assignments came from viewing school as a stepping-stone to college, then success. I had no idea what that meant exactly, but such unassuming idea was very helpful at the time. I’m sure that such idea and work ethic began in my home. There were plenty of conversations and examples of hard work in my home throughout the years. And although I came across several important lessons at home, two particular pieces of advice from my father seemed to stick with me through the years.
"Paying attention sounds so easy, but so difficult to do because distractions can seem so much more interesting. Dedicating time and effort to paying attention and doing my assignments came from viewing school as a stepping-stone to college, then success."
One, he said, “pick your friends wisely”, and two, “never use drugs”. It was as if he was saying that I could and would likely make many mistakes in life, but to really make an effort to avoid those particular mistakes. It was never preachy, more about pushing me to think about the magnitude of those mistakes. And those mistakes were way too easy to see all around me. I could clearly see classmates dazed and confused in the classroom, asking me for help, answers, or directions to the simplest things. I could see them sitting at the park staring aimlessly into the sky. I heard their conversations about nothing that mattered. And it was never one – they were always in small groups. I was cool with everyone, but in my mind I unmistakably knew who was labeled as friend. Staying away from them was actually pretty easy because they had their spots and I had mine. We simply were not interested in the same things. I purposely wanted to surround myself with smart individuals that were about figuring out how to do well in high school, while also having fun and keeping life interesting. There were many friends that sought to make the best of high school, but I had one particular friend that stood out.
It was his competitiveness that really brought the best out of me, especially because I was also very competitive as well. Somehow we figured that we both liked math and began to compete to see who could get top scores. The unintended friendly competition really pushed me to want to do better than him. Doing better meant paying attention in class to catch important details that he may have missed and adding more time to study. I brought him around the house and my family knew who he was. Dad was always big about knowing my friends by name. Looking back, the social aspects outside the class were also important to doing well inside the class. My decisions kept high school interesting, fun, and seemed to make time go by way faster. Most teachers strictly focused on the book and curriculum, but a few good teachers from time to time mentioned other important elements of being an academic such as future goals and college. And for me, college was always the plan. I think I attended one college prep workshop that provided some direction about the process of applying for college. I now realize that attending one single college workshop was the beginning of earning a punch in the face. One workshop was not enough to truly understand how to prepare for all that was coming my way as a first generation college student.
"Most teachers strictly focused on the book and curriculum, but a few good teachers from time to time mentioned other important elements of being an academic such as future goals and college. And for me, college was always the plan."
I think that my first mistake was to believe that because I got good grades in high school, college would be the same. Working toward top grades did matter because they would get me into a top university, but I soon learned that grades alone were not enough. Our school had a counselor, but I did not effectively use their expertise to answer important question and better understand what was ahead of me. I did research information on my own, but it was on my own. I’d never been to college and I was the first one in my family to pursue higher education, which meant that there still so much important information that I did not know. For instance, I didn't know how important college prep courses in high school were, which could have helped me earn college credits. I’m sure that these courses could have given me important insights about what to expect at the university level. In addition, I could have been earning college credits at a far lower cost. Still, I was determined and applied to several colleges. Because my GPA was competitive most Cal States accepted me, but I was really aiming at a UC system because they have a reputation of being better universities. Among the few UC institutions that accepted me, I decided on University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). It felt great to be admitted, but then came a departure from my home that I will never forget.
There I was carefully packing and loading up my beat up Toyota Paseo as it sat parked in the alley behind our house. As I loaded the last boxes I couldn’t help to notice that dad began to cry as we said our good byes. It has been the one and only time I’ve seen my father this way. Surprisingly mom was doing much of the talking. I think that most parents want their children to do better than they did. Going to college was their top priority and it was finally happening. Perhaps that moment symbolized the beginning of me taking advantage of opportunities that they never had. Both my parents are immigrants; my mother and father came from Mexico and Guatemala, and arrived in the United States in the 1970s. Without much education, they had to work very hard to earn a humble living, but with much struggle. For me, the moment was very significant because I knew that it was my way of paying back my parents for all of their hard work and sacrifices through the years. As I drove away I thought about how fast high school went by and wondered what the future would bring.
Unfortunately my initial welcoming was not very good. Like I said, there was much I didn't know. I didn't know that many parents drop off their son or daughter at the dorms. I realized this as I began to see an overabundance of parents on campus helping their kids settle in. It simply did not occur to me, but there I was carrying in my boxes to my dorm room, one at a time, on my own. It was an odd feeling, but I had to quickly brush it off because I knew I had to prepare for my first classes. Initially I was an undeclared major because I still was not well informed and unsure of what direction to take. Still my first classes were set. I felt good, confident, and ready. Then came the next punch in the face. My calculus class forcefully pushed me to realize that I was not prepared for higher education. I was struggling with every single class that I took that first semester. Everything seemed faster, complex, and beyond my grasp. I was confused because I knew that I was smart, but if this was so, then why was I struggling? I soon realized that the problem was that I kept the same study methods and habits from high school because they were all I knew!
"I was struggling with every single class that I took that first semester. Everything seemed faster, complex, and beyond my grasp. I was confused because I knew that I was smart, but if this was so, then why was I struggling? I soon realized that the problem was that I kept the same study methods and habits from high school because they were all I knew!"
I didn't know that doing well at a top university requires new and more refined approach to learning. Simply paying attention and reviewing my notes became an outdated form of studying. Rather than simply paying attention I had to read much more, practice far more, and break down concepts covered in class at a considerably greater level. I resorted to my work ethic to dedicate several hours per day to reach the level of comprehension I needed at the university level. My progression was slow, but I definitely saw the difference in my ability to understand and keep up with the new expectations and work. By the end of my first year I began to ask around and research specific majors that intrigued me. There was only one problem, which was that all directions pointed me to one of the hardest major to get into – electrical engineering. There are about 12 different branches of engineer majors, and within the very hardest to pursue, electrical engineering is among the very top. Still, I wasn't intimidated. I figured that if they could do it, then I could to. Also, I finally realized that I could actually study what I was naturally interested in. Unfortunately, I did not have a 3.5 overall GPA required to declare the major. My struggles during my first year definitely had lastly effects because lowering my GPA happened so quickly, but raising it was taking much longer than expected. For this reason, my initial attempt to formally declare the major was rejected. I decided to take a proactive approach and meet with the department head. My hope was to show initiative and contend that my overall improvements certainly earned me an opportunity to become a part of the major. In a very polite, and borderline arrogant manner, the department chair kindly encouraged me to consider other majors.
I was discouraged for a moment but became even more determined to get in. I continued to take all the prerequisites such as physics and math classes because I couldn't take no for an answer. I actually completed all lower division courses that were related to engineering, but couldn't take the upper division courses because I had to be a part of the major. The plan became to apply one last time before a final cut off period that would prevent me from applying in the future. However, I was hesitant because I had worked my way up to a 3.4 GPA, which was still not meeting the requirement. In my mind, there was a high probability of being rejected once again. Over time, visiting the engineering department office for one reason or another became a common occurrence. I always came across Gerrianne, who was the office manager at the department. I shared with her my situation hoping that she could give me some advice that would at least improve my chance of getting in. My hesitations were eased with her guidance and support, but also because she gave me the idea to attach a letter with the application. Those letters are usually used for appeals, but she thought there was a possibility that the letter would show sustained improvements, commitment, and a personal touch.
I developed the letter and attached it to my application. I thought about the department’s response all the time. While some days were filled with doubt, others were filled with hope. It was Gerrianne who finally told me that I was finally accepted as an electrical engineer major and that I would be receiving the official letter in the mail any day. It was nice hearing such long awaited news from her because she appeared to cheer me on and root for me throughout the process. I was happy, relieved, and ready. However, once I began taking the upper division courses I understood why the standards were so high. The classes were relentlessly difficult. They were absolutely right about that rigor of the major. I devoted every possible moment to studying on my own and with friends. I was still working part-time, which meant that I had to learn how to manage my time. It was my work ethic and self-determination that helped me along the way. My idea of work ethic meant that I was willing to set forth the effort and hours needed to understand intricate concepts. Self-determination was about finding the material interesting and knowing that it was all for a bigger purpose – to become an engineer. Having that overarching goal kept me driven and focused.
"My idea of work ethic meant that I was willing to set forth the effort and hours needed to understand intricate concepts. Self-determination was about finding the material interesting and knowing that it was all for a bigger purpose – to become an engineer."
Still, some courses were notorious for having difficult professors and seemingly impossible odds to passing the class. While most steered clear of such courses a buddy of mine seemed to want to steer directly toward those courses. He invited me to take the class and mentioned that he would help with the lab portion. I was hesitant, but took on the challenge. Unknowingly this decision led me directly to a course that focused on radio frequency circuitry, which taught me how to build a radio from scratch. Taking on the challenge turned out to be the best thing I could do. My lab partner and I built the radio over the course of our senior year. The moment the radio turned on I was certain that all the hard work through the years was worth it. It took an entire year, but I learned so much throughout the process. My curiosity to want to know how wireless radios worked was satisfied fully because I had taken the time to build one with my own hands. Hearing the radio also nostalgic because I knew that my time at UCSB was coming to an end.
It took me an additional year to complete my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering because it took my time to adapt during my first year, but I’m glad that I persisted through difficult times. I was looking forward to graduation because I wanted to figure out what was next for me. The anticipation was building and my entire family was there to celebrate on graduation day. I could see thousands of people in the crowd from my vantage point on stage, but knew exactly were family was. I could clearly see my father jumping, clapping, and cheering for me! I could see his excitement and desire for me to know that he was there. And I did. I could see that he, mom, and the rest of my family were proud. It was a great day! I did my very best to thank them for all their hard work and sacrifices through the years. The work ethic that I learned at home was what carried me during difficult moments.
Initially my next goal was to begin working, but I also began to consider a master’s degree. I did my research, applied, and gladly accepted the opportunity to take higher education to the next level. The expectations were even higher and the material was much more intricate, but by then I knew how to learn, study, and developed helpful habits that made difficult academic tasks much more manageable. Rather than having to look for work, my master’s work helped me earn a great job offer from one of the most respected and prominent engineering companies in the nation. I attended a job fair and with my resume in hand. There interests heightened once they saw my master’s work and outstanding grades. It was difficult to refuse the offer from one of the most respected and prominent engineering companies in the nation such as Lockheed Martin. They develop advanced technologies that support numerous fields such as aerospace and security defense for the United States Military.
"The expectations were even higher and the material was much more intricate, but by then I knew how to learn, study, and developed helpful habits that made difficult academic tasks much more manageable."
I started as a test engineer and also worked on computer networks. My work experiences at Lockheed Martin were great. The actual work experience in the field provided a new layer of knowledge about many aspects of engineering that can only be learned in the field. Hands on experience and being surrounded by experienced engineers gave me a deeper understanding of what I learned in the classroom. I was still working on finishing my master’s degree, but was on my way to being done. I enjoyed the work that I was doing, however, there was one issue. I was spending a lot of time on the road, driving to and from work everyday. I began to consider the value of time and family. For that reason I began to seek a new opportunity that was closer to my rancho, which is what I call home and where I can spend time with my wife and son. Lucky for me Northrop Grumman was another top engineering, aerospace, and defense technology company that had a facility next to Los Angeles. By then I had gained a few years of fieldwork experiences, but unfortunately they were even harder to get in.
It certainly took time, but with persistence I achieved my goal to become part of another top company that does important work. I was hired to be part of a team that supports cutting edge materials and tools needed for stealth technology. Specifically, we’ve been privileged enough to work on the B2 – Spirit, which is a stealth fighter jet designed for the United States military. Recently, I had an opportunity to take a few pictures with my family and the fighter jet. It was a great moment! When me son is old enough, I will show him this picture to share my contribution to society. As a young boy, I never would have thought that I would have the opportunity to be involved with such important work. I’m in a great place because I work with incredible engineers, in a culture that seeks superior innovation, and because I’m close to my rancho. I can say that unconditional support from my family, wife, and my education has gotten me to where I am today. I wasn’t the smartest, but I became an academic that was willing to work hard. I may have learned about college the hard way, but the road itself taught me important lessons along the way. I thought I was building a simple radio, but I was also proving to myself that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I was also setting in motion a very rewarding career. The path I chose to become an engineer was definitely rigorous. Getting well informed, obtaining resources, long hours at the library, and seeking guidance made a world of a difference. But overall, I’m glad that I never gave up.
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