An Uncommon Breed: A contribution to the World Through Chemical Engineering - Mario Gutierrez

As a first generation Mexican American, raised by a single mother, I have found that my ultimate passion and purpose is to improve the life of others. Arriving to such convictions is an amazing feeling that motivates me every day and pushes me to strive to be the very best at anything I pursue. I am certain that my contribution to the world will come from chemical engineering. Although I can now pursue my goals with confidence, I began with zero plans for college, no ideas of what major to pursue, and no notion of a career path. My journey was riddled with harsh life lessons that made me no stranger to pain, depression, and disappointment. Despite such beginnings, I am on my way to complete a PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Michigan. I would like to share my story to inspire young academics and to make a significant positive impact on my community. I want them to know that uncertain and harsh beginnings were what turned my greatest weaknesses into my greatest strengths.

"Although I can now pursue my goals with confidence, I began with zero plans for college, no ideas of what major to pursue, and no notion of a career path. My journey was riddled with harsh life lessons that made me no stranger to pain, depression, and disappointment"

The first memories embedded in my mind are those of the day my father passed away. I was four when my father died of a stroke at my grandma’s house in Mexico. A part of my mother died with my father on that day, since then, depression consumed her life. My father’s early passing also had a tremendous impact in my life – it has led to my resiliency. Soon after my dad’s passing, my mother decided to permanently immigrate to the United States with her brothers to work in the fields of multiple seasonal crops because she knew that I had a greater chance at a better future living in the US. We settled in the state of Wyoming because of the abundance of farm work. Also, there was less of a threat of deportation enforcement at the time. I was one of very few Hispanics within the community. Even at this very young age I began to realize I was culturally and ethnically different from my peers. I was not like the other kids with whom I went to school with. Our parents did not have the same jobs. My physical appearance was different, I did not have a father like the others, my family did not speak English, and I was never involved in extracurricular activities, I worked instead. I never fit in, I was an uncommon breed. I grew up experiencing enormous depression. Yet there was always a little bit of hope in me, hope that things would get better. Hope allowed my imagination to flourish, and my imagination enabled me to dream, and my dreaming caused me to create and pursue my goals.

"Yet there was always a little bit of hope in me, hope that things would get better. Hope allowed my imagination to flourish, and my imagination enabled me to dream, and my dreaming caused me to create and pursue my goals"

Nobody in my immediate family had ever had an education extending past sixth grade, and certainly none had a college education. As such, an environment of hard work, success and pride was instilled me, but it was never suggested or expected of me to attend college. However, I was learning that I had a unique potential that was important to future successes. For example, I was learning that I was competitive, curious, and stubborn. I remember taking part in a mouse trap car competition in high school. It was simply a car built from scratch that was powered by a mouse trap. The competition was about whose car went the furthest. Most students built one car and called it good, but I took the competition seriously. I built a basic a prototype, but continued to develop seven different versions. I tested multiple mouse traps and different traction on wheels. In addition, I designed fiber glass wheels with ideas that I’d taken from my wood-shop class. The end result was that I broke every possible record: best design, longest distance, and fastest car. I liked the idea that I could go far beyond what my classmates were doing. This was the beginning of understanding that I needed to pay less attention to wanting to fit and more attention on activities that naturally interested me. I was curious to see how far I could go with this project, and in doing so I realized that I could pursue and succeed at difficult tasks.

"This was the beginning of understanding that I needed to pay less attention to wanting to fit and more attention on activities that naturally interested me".

My original plans were to finish high school so that I could enter the workforce permanently to help the family financially. However, I had a desire to achieve more, to become a recognized individual. As I worked through the rows of alfalfa hoeing weeds as a teenager, I fantasized about moving away and becoming an educated individual who had the capability of removing his family from their economic struggle. The summer after my junior year of high school I was greatly troubled by the fact that after one more year of high school I would be doing my summer job permanently. I would be working in the fields just like my father and uncles had done for generations. I decided I had nothing to lose if I applied to community college in my hometown. Although I planned to go to community college after high school graduation, I still had no clear direction. The natural thing to do was to continue onto the university, but had no idea how I would pay for tuition or if that was even for me. I had to find a way because going back to the fields was not an option. What significantly changed my path toward success was that I noticed that my friends were filling out scholarship applications.

The competitiveness in me took over and decided that I would apply to as many scholarships as possible. My goal was volume so that I could get as much as possible. My high school counselor noticed my effort and offered some advice about a very specific scholarship. Initially I was not interested because it required multiple essays, letters of recommendation, and had to attend an in-person meeting which was over four hours away hosted by university representatives. Also, I asked how much the scholarship was worth, but she didn’t provide any definite details. However, she did mention that it would cover room and board. At the time I had no idea what that meant. It all seemed impossible, but I would soon learn about ceasing opportunities even when they seem unimportant. Another parent who was going to take her daughter to the in-person meeting for the scholarship offered to take me so I didn’t have to drive alone, but I was still hesitant, but decided to go, nevertheless. I was sick leading up to the trip and had to call the nice lady to let her know that I wasn’t able to go. However, on the morning of the trip I was feeling better. I had a legitimate reason for not going but decided to call and ask if they had left yet, and if it was still possible for me to hitch a ride. I made the trip and it changed my life.

I attended the university meeting where I learned what the scholarship entailed. I learned that room and board meant that the university would cover the entire cost of attending, including tuition and a living stipend. I had the grades and I had the drive! I still had to idea about majors and careers paths, but knew that college was a way out of poverty. I couldn’t wait to head back home to begin the application package. I was determined to get the scholarship. I applied for it and was awarded the Starr Scholarship (full tuition plus room and board) to attend Michigan State University (MSU). My family was highly opposed to the idea of me leaving home and moving over 1,500 miles away for college. College was an alien concept to them and we had always been together. Despite my family’s initial disapproval, my tenacity won and I decided it was best for me to pursue my education far from home. I knew with this sacrifice I could break the tradition and acquire a professional career and better earning power to take care of my family.

"College was an alien concept to them and we had always been together. Despite my family’s initial disapproval, my tenacity won and I decided it was best for me to pursue my education far from home".

Ironically, I still did not know what to study, but during the orientation, many students kept talking about possibly becoming engineer majors. Although taking an engineering path was just a simple thought, I knew I was good at math and science in high school. Still, I was uncertain about what path to follow. The academic advisers that I talked to advised me against choosing an engineering major. On multiple occasions they said that Hispanics tend to struggle with the coursework because it was too difficult. This angered my greatly and I took this as a personal challenge to study engineering. I became certain not only because it was said I couldn’t do it, but also because I found the course descriptions interesting. While going through the material and training, I found out that chemical engineering wasn’t “just interesting” it was absolutely fantastic and it offered numerous career opportunities. I chose engineering as an uncertain interest and challenge, but somehow led me to find my calling and career.

I was motivated because I had a sense of direction and progression. Although the transition was tough because I would be leaving family and friends, I did very well my first year! I was eager to explore and excel within this new environment. At that time my life consisted of laboring with my migrant family, hand-picking, harvesting, and hoeing various crops. But in those moments while working alongside my uncles, I learned the greatest lesson that most young men do not comprehend – hard work. Yes, at the beginning I complained to my uncles about my aching feet, and how damp my clothes were after a rainy day, but eventually I learned to embrace and enjoy work (change). I decided that I could apply such work ethic at school as I’d been taught in the field. I was doing my readings, homework early and working on practice problems to stay ahead of exams and due dates. I was more confident than ever as the years went by. There was always so much information online, which meant that I could search for help and prepare for assignments and exams. However, there was a major downfall once I began taking upper division chemical engineering courses during my junior year. This new level required a different type of thinking. I didn’t realize that I was book smart. This level of learning was about problem solving and application, which books do not teach. I also struggled because I was no longer the best. I was used to learning on my own. I had to refine my study strategies by studying alongside other students who were going through the same experiences.

"At that time my life consisted of laboring with my migrant family, hand-picking, harvesting, and hoeing various crops. But in those moments while working alongside my uncles, I learned the greatest lesson that most young men do not comprehend – hard work".

I found relatability and motivation through other dedicated students and The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). SHPE is a national organization whose mission is to empower Hispanics in areas of STEM. SHPE not only supported me in the development of my professional skills, but also allowed me to develop as a leader. I pursued an internship as a freshman, which many believed couldn’t be done. I was told several times that freshmen didn’t get internships, which made me more determined to find one. Such determination and stubbornness gave me much needed exposure to the field and a better understanding of chemical engineering as an industry. I was learning to excel once again as an academic, learning about giving back to the community through SHPE and gaining field experiences, which gave me perspective. Such experiences and perspectives pushed me to think about what came next for me. Graduating and getting and industry job was the norm for most students and classmates, but I already knew that I was not like most students. By then, I was comfortable doing and going further than any other student. What would be the highest level? My focused shifted toward obtaining research experience to begin working on my next major goal, graduate school.

Graduate school has been a whole new level of learning and dedication, but I love it. I’m not afraid of challenges. In fact, I strategically move directly toward them. I’ve developed an interest in drug delivery and biomedical research, which arose due to the strong connection I have with my father’s passing. As an undergraduate I did not get the opportunity to explore biomedical research; however, I was determined to join this research field as a graduate student. Those harsh life experiences as a young kid are now what motivate me to work hard and strive for excellence. I believe that my unique background enables me to bring novel and unique ideas to the research lab, but also beyond. My increased involvement with SHPE led to my appointment as president of the SHPE|MSU chapter where I’ve been able to able to impact the Hispanic community by leading the efforts to host the first Noche De Ciencias event in the area which still continues to be hosted on a yearly basis. Noche de Ciencias or Family Science Nights, is a national initiative with the purpose of engaging Hispanic youth and their parents in relaxed environments to have fun with science and promote college and engineering awareness in a bilingual setting. As a graduate student, I’ve continued my involvement with SHPE as a graduate student.

"Those harsh life experiences as a young kid are now what motivate me to work hard and strive for excellence".

To aspiring students, I can say that college has been the best time of my life so far. The struggles and victories are equally empowering because they both bring new skills and perspectives. I came from pain, depression, and disappointment, but now focus on problem solving, leadership, and service. One of my most valuable pieces of advice, is that there is no substitute for hard-hard work. In addition, I can say that family support is incredibly important along the way. Although my mother and padrino are not entirely aware of the challenges I face as an academic, they continue to be incredibly encouraging in my life. Also, SHPE has been a tremendous champion in my effort to become the first member in my family to both enter and finish an undergraduate degree. I feel more than confident that I will complete my graduate program. I plan on leading outreach projects to inspire interest in STEM fields from underrepresented minority high school students as others have done for me. Such mentorship has led to my ultimate passion and purpose, which is to become a professional chemical engineer and a Hispanic role model.