A homeless shelter isn’t exactly known for producing college candidates, but for University of Central Florida student Victor Rodriguez the time he spent at a shelter with his family provided the kind of stability he needed to get a shot at a better life.

The New York native bounced from school to school throughout his elementary years as his mother found clerical work in New York. But when the family of four landed at a shelter, his mother had an opportunity for some vocational training, which helped her find more steady work – and that meant less moving around.

It also changed Rodriguez’s future.

Because he was able to stay in one spot,  he spent his middle school years at Henry Street School for International Studies in New York.

“This helped a lot as I made some great connections with teachers and mentors, and I was able to spend 10 days on an international trip to Morocco,” said the engineering major. “The experience opened my eyes. And some of those teachers, they have been the greatest influences on my life.”

The international trip showed him a new world just beyond his reach. The teachers and mentors helped him see that anything was possible if he were willing to work hard.

He said his sixth-grade track coach, Priya Seshan, was one of the biggest influences on his life. Rodriguez had never run for a team before and he and his teammates would often give up, he admitted. Seshan would urge the 11-year-old to do better.

“I told him to have a strong mind and to push, because sometimes your mind will tell you that you can’t do it, but you really can,” said Seshan from her office at the Columbia School of Social Work where she now is an adjunct professor. She is also a school social worker for New York City Public Schools.  “I told him to not give up on himself and tell himself that he couldn’t do it,” she said, “because if he continued and didn’t give up, he could accomplish his goal.”

Seshan may have felt a strong connection to the first-generation student. Though her parents attended college in India, both worked several jobs during and after college. Seshan was the second in her family to pursue higher education in the United States and she worked while earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees because her family couldn’t support her financially.

“Though I had a different cultural and economic upbringing, I have always tried to remind my students that they have to push forward through obstacles, as they will have a variety of barriers due to being minority and low income,” she said.

Seshan coached Rodriguez for only a year and by the time they were done he could run four miles without stopping. He also dreamed of being the first in his family to graduate from college.

When Rodriguez moved to Florida he struggled to adapt because the high school he attended was so large. He finished, but he said he “scraped by.” He enrolled at Valencia College and continued to study math – something he said he was always good at. He worked hard to prep for university life, and in summer 2016 he transferred to UCF through the DirectConnect program.

He credits Seshan and Valencia’s Eda Davis-Lowe for encouraging him to continue. Davis-Lowe is the director of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation partnership at Valencia. The program, funded under the National Science Foundation, aims to increase minority participation in STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

Today, Rodriguez is working toward his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and conducts research at UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center with Assistant Professor Tania Roy. They have been looking at two-dimensional materials and testing the electrical properties of the combined materials. The hope is the material could be used for future semiconductors. Rodriguez hopes to graduate in fall 2018 and earn his Ph.D. in engineering policy before he enters the workforce. That may take up to another five years, he said.

But he doesn’t mind. Pushing boundaries is now part of his DNA.

“I would like to do this to be able to put myself in a position to be able to make decisions that influence those who are truly affected,” he said. “I look at it like this: I look around and there are not many people who look like me or have the same background making decisions. I want to be part of that change that diversifies the meeting rooms and decision-making boards.”