Felipe Valdez’s bold journey takes him from poverty to NASA’s lofty reaches
September 09, 2020
At just 16 years old, Felipe Valdez ’16 (Mechanical Engineering) faced a life-changing decision.
He and his family were living in poverty in Mexico. His mom worked 10-hour days at a local factory. His older sister had dropped out of school, and his parents couldn’t afford for him to continue his own education. And, perhaps most seriously, his father struggled with alcohol and drug addiction.
Should he stay in Mexico with his family and get a job, he asked himself, or move back to the United States, where he was born, and live with extended family so he could continue going to school?
“Many kids want to be like their parents when they grow up. My case was the opposite,” Valdez said. “I didn’t want to be like my dad, so I would always ask myself, ‘what are my options?’ And my only option was to move to the U.S., leaving my parents behind, in order to continue my education and become a better person.”
That difficult decision set Valdez on the path that led to what he is today: a Sacramento State engineering grad who in August started work as an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.
With NASA, he is working alongside “the smartest people on the planet,” he said, and helping develop cutting-edge technology for aircraft, making planes faster, quieter, and more efficient.
Valdez’s interest in math, science and engineering started young.
“I was always good with numbers, had an interest in science, and wondered how mechanical things work from inside out. Then I realized that combining math with science was engineering,” he said. “So later on, that’s when engineering became my passion.”
When he returned to the U.S. as a teen, Valdez spoke no English. On his first day of high school in Live Oak, he says the principal asked if he was “in this school to be one of those gang members.” He immediately switched to River Valley High School in Yuba City and eventually thrived, enrolling at Yuba College before transferring to Sac State.
Once on campus, Valdez became involved in multiple student organizations such as the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi, Society of Professional Hispanic Engineers, Leadership Initiative Program, and the MESA Engineering program, which supports underrepresented students in engineering and science. Inside the classroom, he appreciated the opportunity to get practical research experience and develop meaningful relationships with professors
“I truly enjoyed the combination of hands-on and research that comes with the Engineering program,” he said. “I got the experience that has now prepared me for the workforce.”
Valdez credits his family and close mentors with helping him succeed. Jose Granda, a professor of Engineering, taught several of Valdez’s classes and made a positive impact on his college and future career.
It was Granda who told Valdez about an internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and encouraged him to apply. Valdez was initially hesitant.
“I said, ‘You know what, professor? This is NASA. I don’t even know if I’m going to be accepted or if they’re going to look at my application at all,’ ” Valdez said. “But he believed in me, and he made me believe in myself.”
Valdez got the internship, which kicked off his career with NASA and led to his acceptance into the NASA Pathways Student Trainee Program while in grad school.
Granda’s connection to NASA is deep, including time as the Spanish-language spokesman for the shuttle mission. Valdez was the latest in a long line of Granda’s students to obtain an internship with the agency.
Valdez’s organization, attention to detail, and quality of work set him apart from other students, Granda said.
“To be able to come to an office hour and on a one-to-one basis talk with the professor, you begin realizing that there is a talent in there,” he said. “There is a love of the profession, of doing things of the best of his ability, doing things right.”
Valdez has a big future ahead. This summer, he graduated with his master’s degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from UC Davis. He recently became engaged to his girlfriend, Priscila.
Importantly, his father has been sober since moving back to the United States about a decade ago.
At the end of August, Valdez began working for NASA remotely, though he eventually will move to Southern California, location of the Armstrong research center.
“Working with cutting-edge technology alongside top-quality NASA engineers, that’s really exciting for me,” he said. “Being part of the aviation technology that will help the world and have a positive impact in our lives is what fulfills me as an engineer.”
He’s a long way from living in poverty in Mexico, his future in question. His decision to pursue his education no matter what it took led him here, and he said he hopes his story will inspire others who are struggling or wondering if their dreams are realistic.
“Explore things you are curious about, and don’t be afraid of pursuing your dreams and what makes you happy,” Valdez said. “Make sure to stay focused and consistent, be proactive, and take care of yourself both physically and mentally. These are some of the things that helped me succeed in college.”