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Latinos Reaching New Heights in the Space Industry - Benneth Perez

This is the story of a first-generation graduate whose first job was at a flea market selling candy and over the years came to become a design engineer in the aerospace industry. The intent of this narrative is not for it to be taken as a step-by-step guide on how to land a job in the aerospace industry but instead to read as a personal anecdote of my journey. Within the narrative I talk about where I started, the mistakes I made, the improvements, landing the job, recommendations, and my lessons learned. My objective is to inspire those who might not have thought engineering was for them, much less the aerospace industry. This is proof that if someone such as myself can achieve this goal, so can anyone with the drive and passion for success.

Chapter 1: Who am I?

Over the years of working and learning, I’ve been many things and have had many roles, but the one thing I’ve always been is determined to master my destiny. I’d like to think I’m no more than your average first-generation graduate, whose parents came to the U.S in search of a better future, not for them but their children. My story began around the age of sixteen when I realized my father did not spend too much time at home. He always worked two full-time jobs to provide for three children, a set of twins, and our sister. My mother was a full-time mother, teacher, nurse, mentor, and all the other roles a stay-at-home mother holds. I was not too sure why I wanted to start working but I did know that if my father could work two jobs, the least I could do was work a part-time job. My parents always said that if I worked and started earning money, that the money would corrupt my understating of why I needed a higher education. I worked every once in a while, during my time in high school.

My first job was working with my uncle selling candy at the flea market. The shift was from six in the morning until the day was done, sometimes that turned out to be midnight. I learned the value of a dollar and what it meant to work a humble job. In 2010, I graduated high school with little certainty of what was to come and with a ton of doubt about going to college. I didn’t know if I was going to college because it’s what society expected of me, because other students around me were going, or if because I did not want to work two full-time jobs someday. In the years to come, life would overtake me and show me the value of time, life, and most importantly hard work. Fast forward past all of the setbacks and hardships and we arrive at this point. I’m telling this story to uncover the typical misconception that success is a linear trajectory. In my case, success was very dynamic, a real roller coaster that had a lot of challenges and sacrifices.

Chapter 2: First Generation

People often say the phrase “I’m a first-gen. graduate” but not many express the meaning behind those words. Here is what it meant to be a first-generation graduate in my life. It meant figuring out every step of my career. It meant my father worked two jobs and was never home because one full-time job could not afford a set of twins being raised. Needless to say, my parents did not speak the English language well enough to find better opportunities, but that never stopped them from encouraging their children to study hard and obtain the best grades they could.

When it came to trying to figure out if college was for me, it was unknown territory. Sure, there were high school advisors but it was still a very strange distant trajectory when it all seemed financially impossible. I knew my parents could not afford one of my siblings going to college, much less twins going at the same time. Seeing that my parents did not have formal careers, made going to college ambiguous and disdainful. It was very frustrating at the times trying to get any type of guidance from parents that could not help with college enrollment due to many factors. I did not have the slightest idea of what to major in, where to apply, or even what schools would be a good fit. I tried to be excited but as soon as I saw the first semesters remaining balance of admission, I just turned off like a flame under a lid. The hardest part about being a first-generation student is assurance that a college diploma is worth the sacrifices. I was well aware that while I attended school for the next four years, my father would continue to work but be unable to help my sibling or I financially. My debt would accumulate and it was up to me to figure out living expenses, college tuition, and pre-adult survival skills.

Chapter 3: The Unforeseen Obstacles

Over the years there were many situations that at the time just seemed like I had been dealt the worst poker hand in life. The odds were not always favorable and sometimes the outcomes of finishing up school seemed unattractive. After my first year of college at a private institution that I applied to, only because the application was free, I had lost a part of my scholarship followed by the passing of my dear mother. At this point, I didn’t feel like school was the tool of success. I digressed to taking one course at a community college while working two full-time jobs. This began my extensive multi-skill development that in time would turn into having had over twenty different jobs. After a semester or two, I felt like I was becoming more aware that I did not want to continue working two full-time jobs and the passing of my mother would be the fuel that would ignite my determination. I managed to enroll as a full-time student back at a university and changed one of my full-time jobs to part-time.

After two semesters, I felt that what would help me finish my engineering degree would be doing it side-by-side with my twin brother. He had been studying at a public university and was making good progress. A week before I transferred and relocated, my car broke down and I ended up having to spend all my savings to repair it. I arrived at a new city with little money, no job, and a lot of anxiety about how I was going to figure out tuition and living expenses. That same week I drove around for hours applying to fast food restaurants and retail stores. It was on my third day in the new city when I walked into a recently under construction sandwich store. I got the job, except it was not opening its doors until a few weeks once construction was done. I felt grateful that the world had given me an opportunity; not the best one but it was something. To make a long story short, in the years to come I worked in various fast-food restaurants, call centers, retail stores, warehouses, and so on. In total, it took me seven years to complete my degree, not the traditional four years most expect.

I often took naps in my car a few minutes before my second full or part-time job. People often asked why I carried spare clothes in my vehicle. The truth was that I spent most of my time at work and therefore, I would have to carry my change of uniform with me at all times. Changing in bathrooms from office attire to jeans and a cap was not unusual for me. I was never too proud or too good to roll up my sleeves and wipe down a table, toss out the trash, or make someone’s lunch. These roles taught me well not only about working hard, team effort and company goals but also about people. Engineering is often thought of as a realm of highly intelligent individuals discovering technology and innovating through science. However, engineering is also a group effort that requires people to be able to communicate and work together.

Chapter 4: Non-traditional Path to Success

As I mentioned before, I worked a lot, which took the majority of my time. This in turn meant engineering would only be that much tougher to get through. My study time was severely shortened and when I did have time to study it was difficult trying to understand all the small details of engineering I needed to catch up on. I’m here to tell people that my grades were not perfect and that I did have to retake some courses. In engineering, they call the tougher courses the “weed out” courses. I was always afraid of doing an internship, which I would soon learn was a mistake. My fear was doing a non-paid internship and not being able to earn the money I needed to pay for tuition, groceries, and living expenses including rent.

I was stuck in a vicious cycle that as a first-generation student I did not see a way out of. The more I worked the more my grades suffered. The option of taking loans out seemed like a death trap and trying to get a paid internship felt impossible with my grades. I felt very much stuck and could only see one way out of this. If I finished up my degree, then at least I would have had that to show for all the money and time I had invested. In my 7 years of study, I had one internship and it was not very helpful in developing my engineering skillset. I graduated with no actual engineering experience, other than my senior design project. I now had more debt and two full-time jobs that could not afford my newly activated debt knocking on the door after graduating.

So, this is where I start talking about how I began getting closer to landing a job at the biggest aerospace company in the world. My last two jobs, before doing anything remotely close to engineering was rolling burritos and answering phone calls for customer support. I like to think that although these jobs had nothing to do with engineering that they played a critical part in my engineering journey. Rolling burritos got me through paying for my last semester of college. If it had not been for that job I would not had been able to afford paying for school. Answering calls for customer support helped me develop a keen sense for finding solutions. When a customer called about an issue it was my responsibility to come up with a way to solve their problem, sometime that required some very creative ideas

Chapter 5: Landing The Dream Job

If you made it this far, then you know I had quite a few years of work experience under my belt by the time I graduated, but none related to engineering. I educated myself with free information from the Internet for a few intense months. I could not get a job in the engineering industry despite having a degree but I did not give up. I spent hours and hours doing the following:

1. Reading job descriptions.

2. What was a sane salary expectation?

3. Creating a professional LinkedIn page.

4. What I needed to learn to improve and grow.

5. Learning where the market for my desired job was located.

6. Understanding who I needed to talk to get a hiring interview.

7. Understanding the weaknesses of my resume and what recruiters look for.

8. Figuring out what sacrifices I’d be willing to live with to have my dream job.

9. How to reach out to recruiters and how to have them select me for a hiring interview.

10. Watching any YouTube video I could find talking about real-world engineering experiences.

I gave up my financially sustaining jobs and ventured into the unknown with fear and determination. I accepted a job offer as a CAD designer. Almost a year into that position, I felt like it was not taking me anywhere. I realized I had to stop being afraid of applying to engineering positions to avoid rejections. I began a second role as an architectural CAD technician. The most important part during these two jobs was not so much what I learned through them but what I would spend my free time doing. I would research what an engineer does in real life. All this research made me realize that a lot of my manufacturing roles taken for granted, had given me a lot of engineering experience sublimely. I came to the understanding that in many instances I had done engineering tasks but was unaware of it. It’s important to research what engineering is or any career in the real world past the books and school assignments.

Once I felt confident enough with my skills, knowledge, and myself I decided to start applying to engineering roles. By this time, it had been roughly a year and a half since I had graduated. A few things to point out is that by this point I had applied to well over a thousand job requisitions and spoken to about 50 or more recruiters. Another interesting detail was that out of the thousand plus jobs I had applied to, only about one hundred or so had responded. It seems a bit excessive but looking back at how much I wanted to succeed, I knew it would come down to how determined I was. By now I was a self-proclaimed master of my craft and I knew I had all the right tools to succeed. All the rejections had showed me a hundred ways how not to fail. I revised my resume dozens of times and even my interview skills had sharpened and refined. I used to think the jobs I had worked had taught me nothing about engineering but what I didn’t realize at the time was how confident and reassuring they had made me by exposing me to real-world problem solving. Soon enough I was hearing back from engineering roles, most were still rejections but at last, I had managed to obtain three offers from different companies. Eight months into my first engineering role, I turned in my resignation letter and began packing up to relocate to my dream job in aerospace.

Chapter 6: Lessons Learned

If there were a single thing that I could sum up my whole journey into, it would be to learn from your failures more than your accomplishments. Failures are the key to understanding how to succeed. Take the time to really understand the career you want. Study as much as you can about the role you want, so you are confident applying to the industry of your interest. If there is something that does not sit well with you, whether its location or role responsibilities, make sure you address those concerns before starting a career. Give yourself more credit for what you know. Pull from your experiences and develop those skills into what you need for the role you are pursuing. Get involved with side projects. Reach out to professors, mentors, or staff that might be able to give you a project. The biggest lesson learned throughout my journey, was that rejections only hurt when you allow them to. As my resume kept improving and my interviewing skills kept sharpening, I continued hearing back from some of the bigger companies. I knew I was on the right track by then and all I needed was the confidence in myself, and the opportunity to give it all my best.


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