Aerospace videos inspire incoming student to soar to new heights
Emily Aguilar was already working on a certificate in aircraft mechanics when her high school counselor showed her some aerospace engineering videos that helped her choose an academic direction.

By Katy Smith, College of Engineering
Aug. 23, 2022

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Emily Aguilar
Emily Aguilar was already working on a certificate in aircraft mechanics when her Flowing Wells High School counselor showed her aerospace engineering videos to help her choose an academic direction. "It was this mind-blowing experience. I said, 'This is what I want to do,'" she said Chris Richards/University of Arizona

Emily Aguilar grew up with her parents encouraging her to attend college.

"They've been with me every step of the way, which is amazing. I'm so blessed with that," Aguilar said.

When she chose aerospace engineering as her career path, her parents remained supportive but didn't entirely understand what she would be doing. Then they discovered University of Arizona graduate Teti Gómez on YouTube while looking for videos about the field.

Gómez is originally from El Salvador, as are Aguilar's parents. She led a research project sponsored by NASA before graduating in 2007 with an aerospace engineering degree. Now, Gómez is a commercial pilot and author as well as an engineer.

"They stumbled upon her and loved her. They said, 'This could be your inspiration. Imagine if you turned out like her. That would be so cool,'" Aguilar said.

Aguilar takes inspiration from Gómez, who has thrived in a traditionally male-dominated field. Aguilar hopes she, too, can inspire others to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. She starts as a first-year student at UArizona this week – part of the largest class in university history.

As the first in her family to attend college, Aguilar is already serving as a role model to her three younger siblings, including two foster brothers.

"They look up to me. They didn't see college as an option before they came to us. Now, they're doing amazing in school," she said.

Aguilar plans to design and build aircraft or, more likely, spacecraft. She was already working on a certificate in aircraft mechanics through Pima Community College's JTED, or Joint Technical Education District, program for high school students when her Flowing Wells High School counselor showed her aerospace engineering videos to help her choose an academic direction.

"It was this mind-blowing experience. I said, 'This is what I want to do,'" she said, adding that her love of "Star Wars" also was a factor in the decision.

Aguilar was awarded the Wildcat Tuition Award – the university's highest in-state merit scholarship  and additional financial aid. That assistance – plus the chance to stay close to home and pursue a degree in the College of Engineering's highly ranked aerospace program, and the opportunity to be a W.A. Franke Honors College student – persuaded her to choose UArizona.

But she was intimidated to join the ranks of thousands of students after graduating from a class of 160. So, Aguilar gave herself an advantage before the semester began, spending six weeks in the university's New Start Summer Program. New Start allows incoming students to familiarize themselves with campus, earn academic credit, and meet fellow students and peer mentors.

In the program, Aguilar was grouped with other engineering students, and she's excited to start her classes having made new friends. She also appreciates meeting her peer mentor, third-year aerospace engineering student Miguel Barrera, who shared his contact information with all the engineering students so they could stay in contact. And she plans to remember the advice he provided.

"He said it's going to be hard. He didn't lie to me. He said to never give up," she said.

In addition to teaching time management skills, engaging students in a research project and providing opportunities to meet faculty, New Start covers topics such as imposter syndrome, a phenomenon in which a person feels like a fraud compared to their peers. It's a common problem for first-generation students who sometimes feel like they don't belong at a university, Barrera said .

"It's really challenging being first-generation, so I'm glad Emily took New Start and that she's doing her best to attend college," he said.

Aguilar was especially engaged in getting to know her fellow students throughout the experience, Barrera said. For her, that was a highlight of the summer.

"If someone likes to share their story, I'm all ears," she said. "I love to hear about what they've been through, where they're from, any type of culture."

For example, Aguilar's New Start tutor was an exchange student from China.

"It was amazing hearing what her daily life was like there, and what she's doing now," Aguilar said.

Aguilar hopes to continue expanding her world by immersing herself in campus opportunities such as the Baja Wildcat Racing Team, a student club that designs, fabricates, tests and competes with single-seat off-road cars. She'd also love to follow in Gómez's footsteps by becoming a member of a high-profile research team. Aguilar also anticipates meeting many more interesting people in the coming years at UArizona.

"It opens a new aspect that there's more out there, and you can get a glance through other people," she said.

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Katy Smith

College of Engineering