An Unplanned Route to Become An Engineer - Leo Soto

I thought I had more time, but I didn’t. By the time high school approached, I hadn’t filled out any college applications or financial aid forms. I didn’t notice at the time because none of my friends were filling out applications either. High school graduation seemed to sneak up, but maybe I just wasn't paying attention. We were in our own world, feeding and influencing each other in all the wrong ways. I knew that I wanted to go to college but I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Was I doomed? No, not at all. I’m extremely glad that I pushed myself forward by enrolling myself at a local community college. Knowing exactly where I was heading was not important. As I look back, I realize that what was more important was that I gave myself an opportunity to figure out my path along the way. I’m now an engineer working on pretty amazing projects that involve satellites in space! What helped me get where I am today was math, good friends, mentors, and family support.

"I thought I had more time, but I didn’t. By the time high school approached, I hadn’t filled out any college applications or financial aid forms. I didn’t notice at the time because none of my friends were filling out applications either"

I wasn't prepared for life after school. I had great friends in high school, but ongoing conversations, informational workshops, and college applications we not on our radar! We didn’t have anyone guiding us or pushing us to dedicate time to prepare for college. Not planning for college on our own was the easy thing to do. I don't recommend that approach. We were first generation students who didn’t have parents with college experience and teachers didn’t talk much about college. I was in honor classes early on and noticed that teachers often mentioned college there, but those discussions disappeared in regular classes. I wasn't doing what it took to stay in honor courses, plus I was allowing track and cross-country to take up too much of my time. Looking back, that was a mistake. Looking for a job was the logical thing to do. I began working immediately after high school because I didn’t want to depend on my parents for money. I was a full-time cashier at Best Buy! I soon learned to hate it. People who had issues or problems inside the store often took out their frustrations on cashiers. We were trained to smile and do our best to deescalate their displaced anger, but it was never easy.

My dad made very clear the idea that not going to college and only working meant that I was going to start paying rent, which was his way of teaching me to be responsible. I enrolled myself at the community college because I’d gotten a glimpse of jobs that don't require degrees. I didn’t see myself at Best Buy forever. I still had no clear direction but once I was at the community college I simply followed what a friend was doing. At the time, he was working on an engineering technician certificate. I thought, why not? Along the way I learned that this certificate would not allow me to do real work that engineers do. I would simply do what real engineers would tell me to do. I didn’t know how to think big yet because I still hadn’t considered the idea of becoming an engineer. The very first time I formally contemplated taking a path toward an engineering degree came from a simple conversation with a professor. It was Dr. Nathenson who asked me why I was in a basic engineering class that would only give me a certificate, rather than a transferable engineering course. I was doing well in his class, which I believe prompted him to ask me about my choices. I didn’t have a clear answer, but the conversation pushed me ponder the idea of becoming an engineer. Why not? I knew I liked math and physics. As a result, I officially switched to an engineering major.

"I didn’t know how to think big yet because I still hadn’t considered the idea of becoming an engineer. The very first time I formally contemplated taking a path toward an engineering degree came from a simple conversation with a professor".

My grades began to climb because math and physics are the foundation to engineering, and these two subjects were my strengths! For those young academics that may have a hard time with physics consider this, physics can teach us to invent the world that doesn’t exist yet. And math is a strong foundation to physics. Also, I would say that algebra helps better understand physics principles that are around us everywhere. I was the type of student in high school who wondered if I would ever use what was being taught in the classroom. Without a doubt, the answer is yes! Along the way we also learned discipline and built foundations for what was ahead in college. Developing strong study habits also matter enormously because without them, harder course material seems impossible. Hard courses were manageable for me because I found topics challenging, but interesting at the same time. Although I was only beginning my academic career, my family was proud of my community college graduation. I worked toward a strong GPA and enough transferable units to begin the university application process with the help of campus counselors. I was accepted to Rutgers University in New Jersey.

To be honest, I struggled at Rutgers early on because several small issues were mounting into obstacles that I wasn't sure how I was going to overcome. By then I was working at Target in the stock room unloading trucks, commuting, and still parking a great distance to get to campus. Simply getting to class was taking almost two hours. In addition, the classes were harder, and I hadn’t refined and improved my study habits. All of this also meant that I wasn't getting enough sleep. I went from earning top grades at the community college to average grades at the university level, which was very discouraging. To put things into perspective my entire community college was two buildings, likely smaller than a typical high school. Rutgers was massive in comparison. It was a beautiful campus that I wasn't getting to know because I was spending most of my time traveling in and out of the campus everyday. I wasn't part of any support programs or taking advantage of any resources that they had to offer, but this all changed unexpectedly.

"I went from earning top grades at the community college to average grades at the university level, which was very discouraging".

Cesar, who was also an engineering student, approached me and said that he belonged to the Society of Hispanic for Professional Engineers (SHPE). He mentioned that they provided support for aspiring Hispanic engineers and that I should stop by to learn more. I decided to attend and was amazed by what I was seeing. This was the first time I was exposed to the SHPE world. Suddenly I knew other engineers that were setting up study groups. The upperclassmen were like my heroes. They helped me with resume development and preparation for structured interviews. They also focused on other important proficiencies such as learning how to speak to recruiters when job searching. I was never exposed to such important skills prior to SHPE. I didn’t even own a suit yet. I was studying more, had support all around me, and was spending much more time on campus because SHPE group members became good friends and offered me a place to stay. I decided to let go of the job that was taking time away from studying, but kept tutoring. Some friends and I eventually decided to look for an apartment near the campus. This is the very first time I had an actual bill in my name, which was yet another small introduction into adulthood.

Dedicating more time to course work was a great decision because it boosted my confidence and grades. I was able to refine my study habits through trial and error. Meaning that I tried several study methods until I found what worked for me. For example, I figured out that I studied better in the library, rather than in the apartment. Sometimes I needed to study alone, while studying with friends often helped because we helped each other get unstuck. From then on, I was able to focus on school and work on projects that were interesting. At Rutger’s I was exposed to the many engineering subfields, but I choose to focus on aerospace. One of our courses involved designing and building a fully automatous spider robot for NASA that was meant to collect dust and dirt samples wherever it was sent. The goal was to allow the robotic spider to walk on different types of terrain without it getting stuck. We had to research everything! Because the robotic spider was meant to explore in space, materials were an important aspect of the design. The project took a whole year to plan, develop, and build. Our team learned to problem-solve and figure out ways to ensure that the robot would collect samples effectively. We were receiving true hands on experiences, which is extremely important to becoming engineers.

While progressing within the classroom I was still active with SHPE. It was at one of their annual conferences that I applied for a summer internship at Boeing. Working for Boeing was a dream job. Starting out as an intern would provide additional experience while also allowing me to put a foot in the door to the very best company in aerospace. With SHPE’s preparation I was able to get the internship and was on my way to support established engineers with building and analysis. I was burned out by the time graduation neared, but also excited to move on to experience a new chapter in life. Graduation was a great moment because it was the culmination of dedication and hard work. I remember taking pictures with the family and taking in such a surreal moment that seemed so distant at times. I was looking forward to officially begin my career as an engineer after graduation. The natural place to start was at Boeing! An opportunity arose, but I would have to move. I was willing to pursue my career wherever it would take me, which was California! I felt well prepared and eager to put in practice real-world skills that I learned in college. I thought that the culmination of my hard work would involve graduation day, but I’ve felt the most pride and fulfillment alongside my family and SHPE.

I stayed involved with SHPE because I wanted to give back to the Latino community as they did for me. I volunteered my time for every event that was meant to empower up and coming engineers because I learned first hand the value of mentorship. For those reasons, I was nominated to receive the professional role model of the year award at SHPE’s national conference. My sister couldn't make it, but I was able to bring mom and dad. I thought it would be nice to introduce them to a world that they’ve never experienced before. In addition, they would get to see their son do a two-minute acceptance speech. I remember seeing my mom mesmerized at this new world that she’d never seen before. There was a sea of Latino and Latina engineers, and their son was among them. This was a big moment for us. This moment was important because my family was present and because I never thought that I would be there a few years back. Having my parents experience this moment was a great feeling. All my life I’ve known my father as a strict and stern man. He was never the type to express himself, but that day was different. Right before my speech he tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that he was proud of me. I will never forget that moment. I always knew that he was proud of me, but it felt good hearing it. All the little arguments and misunderstandings we had through the years became nonsense, they simply disappeared. The timing was not the best because now I had to organize my thoughts for the speech, but I made it work!

"I remember seeing my mom mesmerized at this new world that she’d never seen before. There was a sea of Latino and Latina engineers, and their son was among them. This was a big moment for us. This moment was important because my family was present and because I never thought that I would be there a few years back".

My professional experience through the years as an engineer has opened doors for me. I now lead a team of engineers at Boeing who are responsible for the structural integrity of satellites that roam outer space. I enjoy what we do. I work alongside the brightest minds to achieve important work. I’m using much of what I learned as an academic in the real world. For those aspiring engineers, know that studying hard in high school and college pays off. Math courses are key to future success! I can also say that many engineers never work alone. Learning to work alongside others as a team to accomplish common goals is an important skill to develop. Finding your unique path must involve mentors that can provide guidance and important perspectives that we cannot see on our own. My particular path to become an engineer was unplanned, but my drive to find my path was fueled by family support and mentorship along the way. Now my focus is traveling around the world with lifelong friends and guiding the next generation of engineers that will help change the world!