An Academic Reaching For The Stars! - Edgar Valdez
I admit, poking my brother in the forehead with a pencil was a bad idea, but as a result I eventually learned multiplication by the time I was in kindergarten. I relentlessly bugged my two older brothers to teach me math so I could see how they did their homework. It wasn't a surprise to know that I knew how to multiply numbers before I knew the alphabet. Curiosity has always been a part of me. I wanted to know about numbers and also about the stars in the sky. Our town has many picking fields, which meant minimal city lights obstructing the bright sky. I could clearly see countless stars and I often found myself looking up wondering why some stars seemed brighter than others and how some stars twinkled while others did not. Why do we have a moon? And how did it get there? These were questions I would pose for my parents, but they didn’t know and often made up answers to satisfy my curiosity. I always believed what they said, I didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until mom started taking my siblings and I to the library to read and use the computer that I started to answer simple questions about the planets, stars, the moon, and space. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know about what was going on up above us all. I was in awe and deeply fascinated! As I got older I felt a bit odd because most of my friends were dropping out of school to work in the fields, but I knew I wanted more for myself.
I was raised in Gonzales, California, which was a small community of about 10,000 people. It was a farming and picking town with only one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. Most people born there eventually stayed there to work in the fields or agricultural related jobs. I’d say it was an unspoken norm that many of my friends seem to have. In fact, only about 40% of those who started as freshmen graduated from high school with me. Both mom and dad seemed to want much more for my brothers, sister and me because they found their own ways to let us know that school was important. During school hours, mom unexpectedly went to school to randomly check up on us and talk to our teachers to see how we were doing in class. I was a bit embarrassed at the time, but now I appreciate it. She also had my brothers and I do homework together in the kitchen table. She often brought us snacks to keep us from getting distracted and to prevent us from using hunger as an excuse to distract ourselves. Doing homework together was a common part of our household that kept us from getting in trouble like some of our neighborhood friends that had nothing else to do. We played outside too, but mom kept a close eye on us.
"Both mom and dad seemed to want much more for my brothers, sister and me because they found their own ways to let us know that school was important."
Dad came home tired after working long hours in the fields. My brothers and I took turns tugging off his muddy boots when he came home. He often reminded us that we needed to do more and accomplish more than he did. I remember him telling me to look at the dirty boots as I pulled them off. He asked, is this what you want for yourself, for the rest of your life? Such questions that came from time to time were my father’s way of getting us to think about our future. The boots became a reminder of what hard, laborious work looked like without an education and his way of telling us that school was important. Aside from that he also made time to follow up with us to ask us about sports or anything important going on. He made sure to show up when any of us were receiving achievements plaques in school. Having two older brothers that were doing great in school served as a motivation and I wanted to be like them. There was a friendly competitive spirit that kept me wanting to earn my own awards. I remember my friends and family cheering for them when they received recognitions in school, and I also wanted to feel recognized.
Early on I knew I liked numbers and science but didn't know exactly what I would be doing with that in the future, but that changed when I was introduced to golf by my 5th grade teacher. He encouraged the majority of my classmates to join the golf club and so it became an after school hobby. As a 5th grader, I didn’t understand physics and I had never learned about physics but I was well aware that there were certain physics “laws” that golf took into account. I could literally see how my swing could control the acceleration, the force, and the angles that the ball’s trajectory took. Initially, I was intimidated because I was new at the game and I was playing with older and bigger kids that were capable of hitting the ball much harder and making the ball go much further than I. After playing a few holes with these older students, I realized that size had little to do with golf, I went on to do extremely well. I actually became champ. I was never as good at soccer like my brothers, but I was able to use my brain and applied it to another sport. I think that applying school stuff to something happening outside the classroom was helpful. I began to develop the idea of college once I realized that it was how I was going to have a career beyond the fields. First, I had to get through high school, which wasn't easy. I made mistakes, but also figured out how to get through bad teachers and difficult math classes.
High school did not come easy. I was over confident because middle school was a breeze, which led me to mistakenly think that I didn't need to put in much study time. Plus I didn't know how to study yet. In addition, I was playing football, which required several hours of practice. Managing my time in high school was tough, but it was what I had to do. Adjusting became about organizing my time and prioritizing school before football. Most of my friends did the opposite because they assumed that they could make football a professional career. I began to add more time of my day toward school. This also meant that I had to think and plan ahead to prepare. I slowly worked on improving my grades. Another mistake I made was not asking for help throughout high school. I think it’s easy to fall into the habit of not asking for help until it was absolutely necessary. Looking back, I should have asked my teachers more questions about college, during class, and about figuring out my career path much sooner. I’m glad that I started asking toward the end of high school, but I definitely should have asked much sooner and along the way. Once I started asking questions I began to learn about the college application process. Our counselor was good at luring us to fill out college applications because she gave us a banner for each college that we applied to. She also had snacks in her office, which also encouraged my friends and I to visit her office.
"High school did not come easy. I was over confident because middle school was a breeze, which led me to mistakenly think that I didn't need to put in much study time. Plus I didn't know how to study yet."
I enjoyed math, science, and particularly physics during high school and was getting good grades in all my classes with the exception of calculus. I struggled to stay focused in the beginning of this class because the teacher only taught for the first month. He realized that many of students didn’t want to learn and made the decision that he wasn’t going to teach either. I disagreed with his decision but I wasn’t going sit there and allow him or the other students to stop me from figuring out what I needed to know in the future. Out of boredom, I decided to pick up the book and for the first time ever I followed the examples and worked out the problems in the book. I always thought that math books simply had practice problems for the teacher to give us homework from and for them to use as examples. I quickly realized I was wrong and I discovered that most of the math problems had a description that provided a step-by-step rationale that made concepts easy to understand. My strategy worked because I did well as I took quizzes or tests. Such accomplishment allowed me to see that with time, effort and persistence at anything is possible. Teaching myself was not the ideal situation, but I liked the idea of figuring things out for myself.
High school graduation brings back good memories because I remember seeing my family cheering for me and enjoying the day because of an accomplishment that I worked hard for. I remember seeing everyone hanging out with one another, taking tons of pictures, good food, and knowing that it was just for me. I was eager to get started with life after high school. During summer break as I anxiously waited for the fall semester to begin at UC Santa Cruz. Rather than taking a break during summer and not doing anything, I decided to go work with my dad. My mother completely against the idea because she always emphasized that working in the fields would never be an option for us. She was afraid that I would like the idea of getting a paycheck and change my mind of going to college, which was often the case for many young adults in our town. Still, I knew it was only for the summer. I will never forget that summer because I often worked seven days straight, and twelve hour shift, which amounted to about 70 hours of work a week. It was hot, grueling, and intense, but such experience made me appreciate field workers and value even more how my father works till this day for our family.
Living at the dorms and experiencing campus life was so different from the small town that I came from. It took me time to adjust, but soon began to enjoy my independence. My declared major was initially astrophysics, but couldn't take a required course for the major because it conflicted with my work schedule. I worked as a calculus and physics tutor for high school students. Although it all worked out, I should have made school my number one priority. I had to come up with a new plan. I took the initiative to reach out to my counselor for guidance. She saw that I was very interested in doing well and directed me to an engineering class that I would likely need and benefit from because of my interests. I wasn’t able to enroll in the class because add deadlines passed, but the professor allowed me to sit in his class to learn and see what it was all about. From the start of the class, I found it so interesting and, to me, it wasn’t as complicated as I previously thought it would be. I found the course material very interesting especially when the professor used Voyager 1 space probe as an example to describe and highlight how radio frequencies work. I was amazed to learn that a one-way signal from Voyager 1, traveling at the speed of light, took about 18 hours to reach earth. It fueled my curiosity to want to learn more and realized that this was exactly what I wanted to study. By the end of the quarter semester I changed my major to electrical engineering.
I really enjoyed the classes, but found myself struggling academically. First, each course was simply hard, much harder than expected. And secondly, I hadn’t exactly learned how to study effectively. I hadn’t considered that I developed very bad habits in high school. In fact, I studied minimally while maintaining good grades back then. I was learning the hard way that minimal studying does not work at the university level. I soon realized that I had to go past very bad habits, add additional time to read, and form new study strategies as the courses became harder and harder. For example, in high school I often prepared one or two days before an exam. I learned to add several more days, sometimes weeks to make sure that I understand the material. I also learned to force myself to study in the library, where there were far less distractions. Studying in the library with other friends who are more studious that I was important because I was able to see them as a role model and see what “studying” actually looked like. Living only an hour away from home, I often commuted to visit my parents every weekend initially, but then learned to stay back more often because I could spend more time studying. These simple changes seem easy, but actually took effort to adjust.
"I hadn’t considered that I developed very bad habits in high school. In fact, I studied minimally while maintaining good grades back then. I was learning the hard way that minimal studying does not work at the university level."
To account for the social aspects of academic adjustments I slowly began attending campus events. I attended a cultural event for diversity, which led to being pleasantly surprised as I saw like-minded individuals that looked like me. In my department there were very few Latinos and in my classes I was usually the only one. Meeting new people who I could relate to and who reminded me of my friends from Gonzales, led to joining a fraternity. The group was less about partying and more about organizing community events for local schools in the area. Each new experience outside the classroom helped me realize that being involved in extracurricular activities and organizations helped me build social skills that did not come easy to me. I believe being part of this social organization allowed me to grow out of my shyness and let others know what my plans for the future were. I learned to not be shy and to network with others. During my junior year I became friends with Alex Baradales, who was a transfer student and was a few years older. He sparked the idea of pursuing graduate school. Why not, right? He argued that I would have more opportunities to build a meaningful career doing something I really liked and that top companies are looking for such qualifications. Sure, it’s more years of schooling, but it’s also more of everything else positive that comes along with being an academic. Plus, I actually liked school, even if it was challenging.
Our conversations helped me realize I had to raise my GPA to get into a master’s program. Alex invited me to attend a presentation where they discussed requirements and the process to apply for graduate school. That specific event and listening to my friend was instrumental toward my desire to study even more and enjoy being an academic. As a result, I decided to pursue being part of a program at called California Alliance Minority Participation, which is also known as CAMP. CAMP allows students to do research in a laboratory setting under a professor in their field of study. Not only does CAMP provide a stipend, but it also allows students to take advantage of resources that prepare students for graduate studies. The program exposed me to studying through hands-on experience, the life of graduate students and how primary investigators run their labs. Specifically, I was exposed to an advanced research lab setting that developed nanowires to convert thermal energy into electrical energy. Although the technology was being potentially developed for motor vehicles, I thought about its application in space systems. For some reason I never let go of my fascination of all that lies beyond earth in outer space. It was all a glimpse of what graduate school would be all about. Nothing was easy, but it was all so awesome.
"Not only does CAMP provide a stipend, but it also allows students to take advantage of resources that prepare students for graduate studies. The program exposed me to studying through hands-on experience, the life of graduate students and how primary investigators run their labs".
Towards the near end at UC Santa Cruz I had the privilege to traveling to the University of Southern California (USC) through a summer program to do additional research at the computer science lab. While doing the summer program I had the opportunity to work with robots that are designed to help the elderly and potentially help young children exercise. It was another great learning experience that taught me about the significance of technology and innovation. It is a great feeling to know that these experiences as an academic will eventually allow me to contribute to potentially new and amazing advances in the future. I would like to be a part of such advances in the aerospace field because there is so much to learn about life beyond Earth. The possibilities and benefits are boundless. I enjoyed the campus life and the culture, which led to my decision to pursue a master’s program at USC. Finally, after so much hard work and balancing social life, community activities with the fraternity, study time, working part-time, and a girlfriend I managed to pull through and graduate from UC Santa Cruz with strong grades. Graduation was another memorable day that I will never forget. We had family a gathering that celebrated my hard work and achievements. I will have to admit that I went through many difficult moments along the way, but it was all worth it. My family was proud of me, and I was most certainly proud. Graduation day was not about one single day, but more about all the anticipation, the planning, the actual day, and all that comes after such an important milestone. I was ready to embark into the next step in my academic journey in graduate school. I decided to attend USC and major as an Astronautical Engineer, which combined what I am passionate about - aerospace and engineering.
I’m at the beginning of my second year as a grad student. Once again it has been much harder than I thought it would, which is not a bad thing, it is just a reality that has required many adjustments. The campus is somewhat culturally diverse but in my department it is not. There were times where I was the only Latino student and felt that I had to work twice as hard to prove myself and represent my community. Many days and even weeks have been overwhelming. I usually dedicate about 50 hours a week of study time. And this time does not include lectures and required labs. It’s not just me, all of my friends that are also in the program devote about the same amount of time. The good news is that the material we are learning is so interesting to me. Studying in small groups is a common practice that really works because we help each other figure out what one of us may not quite understand. I’m constantly hearing different points of view and doing so also keeps me from dedicating so many hours of studying alone. I can actually say that studying becomes fun because the content stimulates my mind. It is a great time to become an Astronautical Engineer. We live in very exciting times because technology is advancing rapidly. Companies like SpaceX are transforming the limits of space exploration. Their forward thinking and innovative advances have and will continue to make aerospace exciting forever. Knowing this keeps me driven to learn from each course at a deep level. I know I will need to know the content deeply as I prepare for real-world application and a career in outer space. I think that wanting to learn and being so interested in what I study has really helped me stay motivated during difficult days.
"I know I will need to know the content deeply as I prepare for real-world application and a career in outer space. I think that wanting to learn and being so interested in what I study has really helped me stay motivated during difficult days."
I’ve learned that an important part of being an academic is seeking support. Social and professional elements of being an academic have emerged because I belong to the Latino Alumni Association (LAA), which is one of the reasons why I’m part of the Trojan family. Through the Latino Alumni Association I have been able to get scholarships that help pay for my tuition. Through the LAA I have been able to connect with other like-minded individuals that look like me, sound like me, and that understand the culture that I come from. More importantly, they want to excel academically like I do. Such support has become a network of support. The social events are about finding mentors, having fun, and meant to raise more money that goes back to students like me. The events also give me a break from long study sessions. Such balance allows academics to be enjoyable.
At times when I do struggle or feel lazy I get back up because I remind myself that I owe many of my accomplishments to my parents who always pushed me to stay focused in school and to want more for myself. My brothers unknowingly motivated me to be like them and excel beyond my limits. It looks like relentlessly bugging them until they taught me about numbers was worth it. My younger sister also motivates me because I would like to be a good example to her. During overwhelming moments I also remember dirty boots. My father’s dirty boots remind me of his sacrifices, struggles, and the long and hard seventy-five-hour workweeks that my dad still puts in till this day to support our family. He has worked those fields for several years, which has been a major factor that contributes to my work ethic. If he works hard, then I have to work harder – but as an academic and future astronaut. What’s next? I am going to finish my master’s program. Then start doing some research for PhD programs or maybe gain some work experience in the field. Regardless, I like having the choice and knowing I will be doing something great in either case. The ultimate goal is to become an astronaut. It is often said that we should all reach for the stars, but for me it is actually a strong possibility.