During Hispanic Heritage Month, UCF Today will share some of our students’ and faculty members’ stories and how being Latino has shaped their lives.

For Alex Chavez, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, his family was instrumental in helping him focus on his career.

His parents sacrificed their jobs in Peru as an accountant and a nutritionist in 2003 to become a dishwasher and housekeeper in America to seek a new life for their children. Then, after his two older sisters became engineers, they helped him “understand what engineering really is.”

“I really owe it to my parents a lot, the labor they put in order to help our family,” Chavez said. “When you come here from another country, your degrees don’t necessarily come with you.”

In the 13 years since his family left home, Chavez has thrown himself into the study of engineering. He’s worked with the Putnam Labs research group at UCF studying interfacial heat transport, interned at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to study microfluidics and its applications for the human body, and will be interning this semester at Lockheed Martin. He hopes one day to be the director of a materials-research lab, studying the properties of materials at large and small scales.

While Chavez’ relatives shaped his love of science, it was his peers at the UCF branch of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers that showed him what a welcoming community the sciences can be. He calls them his “familia,” and they’re united as much by a shared love of science as they are by ties of friendship and culture. Many of its members, like Chavez, are from families who immigrated from other countries in South America.

“[The society] really helped me connect with other engineers,” Chavez said. “Before, all of the engineers I knew were in my classes. We would talk about homework and projects, but there wasn’t another layer to that. The society helped me connect with people that were from my culture, my ethnicity — we connected so quickly.

“That really struck me, that sense of community…we all unite. We weren’t united just for the work, we were united because we all really bonded.”

Chavez joined the society in 2014 and now works as its coordinator, engaging local high school students as part of an engineering-outreach program.

“It’s all about spreading your knowledge to others,” he said. “We reach out to high school students as part of our SHPE Jr. scholarship. We promote STEM to these kids. At my high school we didn’t have a group of people come up to us and tell us what engineering is.”

His latest project is a design competition involving 15 students. The high schoolers are tasked with building a rocket, which Chavez and his fellow society members will judge. The winner will receive a $500 prize.

Chavez views his studies like his life: There are no guaranteed solutions, so sometimes you’ve just got to work and work and work until you find an answer, even if it’s not the one you expected.

“When you’re doing experiments, there’s no guaranteed path to a solution,” he said. “You’ve got to be willing to try new things, experiment with new approaches when your answer isn’t right.”