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Overcoming Struggles

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Overcoming Struggles

Season 2 · Episode 16

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Some students struggle with trauma, mental health, mental disabilities, and negative peers and adults; and yet, with the right decisions and the right help, they still will become successful engineers. Hector is a computer engineer who has such a story. Although engineering and computers interested him early on, he faced several major obstacles on his path to getting an engineering degree. Hector talks about self-reflection, accommodations, and other supports that helped him overcome these obstacles.

Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.

Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, by purchasing digital teaching materials at the Pios Labs curriculum store, or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.


Pius Wong  0:00 

It's June 19th, 2017. And this is the K12 Engineering Education Podcast. People who want to become engineers often struggle, through academics, through expectations, and through all sorts of challenges. Today, we hear the story of Hector, a computer engineer in Houston, Texas, and he talks about how he faced and overcame plenty of struggles on his path to engineering.


Hector  0:32 

I am a systems administrator for a small nonprofit by the name of Portfolio Resident Services. But I also do a bit of developing. And the company primarily deals with low-income families and making sure that they meet certain government requirements, affordable housing and whatnot, that would be some of the initiatives that they work with. Or Meals on Wheels. You may have heard of that one as well.


Pius Wong  0:55 

So what are some of the things you might do for them?


Hector  0:58 

It ranges between fixing computer, printers, to developing applications, writing scripts for forms for our web applications, hiring for data entry. I have a small team that I work with. They're inputting data just to make sure that the process is easier for all the coordinators out in the field.


Pius Wong  1:20 

How long have you been working in this field?


Hector  1:24 

I've been with them for five and a half years. But it wasn't until two years ago that I was -- actually a year ago that I was hired full-time, right after I got my degree in Computer Engineering. Shortly after, they offered me a full-time position to primarily code, but as the needs of the organization have developed, I had to take up other tasks such as, you know, management and technical repairs, because it was easier to have me there and pay me as a technician, to take care of those things, than to hire an outside person. They were already familiar with me.


Pius Wong  1:59 

So I guess it's that classic thing of, because you're in this smaller team, you got to do pretty much everything that you can. Okay, I wanted to talk to you, because I heard that you have your own personal story for how you got into engineering in the first place and computer science. And a lot of the episodes that I've been doing before, they focus on how a lot of kids don't ever get to do computer science or engineering, because they drop out along the way, or they think it's too hard or people don't support them. I am just wondering if you can tell me a little bit about why you even pursued this career. Like when did it start? When did you think you really wanted to do this?


Hector  2:40 

It started at a young age. My father introduced me to technology early on. I remember playing Wolfenstein on this old PC back in the day. Ever since then I've been very fascinated by it. He used to have these little projects with me when I got into it. He would encourage me to build my own computer. It would be like, so you want a good gaming computer to play all these nice games? Well, how about you look into how to build it yourself? What components would you need? That got me really interested in it and pushed me into that direction.


Pius Wong  3:17 

Did your dad know about all that stuff, or did he kind of just encourage you?


Hector  3:21 

Well, he did know how to do it. He was a technician, or he is a technician, as well. But he just used to run cables for NASA, very basic networking, computer maintenance stuff. But he always knew that definitely, if he could get us into that field, that's that's the place to be.


Pius Wong  3:39 

When you were growing up, did you feel like there were any barriers for you getting into engineering and computer science?


Hector  3:48 

Growing up, my childhood was a little different. Because early on, I was diagnosed with -- Well, they thought I had cancer when I was in elementary school, and it turned out to be a cyst. And basically, I wasn't allowed to attend gym or do any physical activities until I was in high school. So I spent a lot of my time in the library and just sort of, you know, the general social outcast. So I got a chance to pursue my own passions, rather than just go along with whwat was sort of expected of that age group. And so just did a lot of reading. And just pursued my own interests, my own passions. It was very -- it was non-standard in the sense that I was -- there wasn't as many restrictions in terms of what was expected of me like even in middle school. They had me be an office worker, but generally, I could just roam around for an hour and just either go to the library, or, you know, help out with the administration.


Pius Wong  4:52 

Wait, so why would they let you just roam around and do whatever you want? Was this in place of school?


Hector  4:56 

Yes, during gym time, they would let me either manage stuff in the front office, or you know, talk with the principal, vice principal, the counselors. Assist them with their everyday things, or just sort of study, whatever I wanted.


Pius Wong  5:13 

And so did you have a lot of encouragement to apply to a college that focused on engineering?


Hector  5:19 

Only from my father. Most of the time from school, they just told me I should pursue sports because of my abnormal height at the time.


Pius Wong  5:29 

And how tall are you?


Hector  5:31 

I am 6'3", and I was already around 5'11" in the fifth or sixth grade.


Pius Wong  5:38 

That's incredible. Like, I'm super short. So so I'm jealous in some ways.


Hector  5:44 

I might be exaggerating it a bit. But I was definitely tall for that time period, tall enough to where all the coaches or anyone that I met -- It's like, why aren't you playing basketball?


Pius Wong  5:52 

And normally, the really tall kid is supposed to be super cool and everything, right?


Hector  5:57 

Really? Because I don't know. I missed that notice.


Pius Wong  5:59 

Yeah, I don't know. I think the grass is always greener as they say.


Hector  6:04 

Yeah, because if anything, I just stuck out more, you know, that big object in the sky. So you became a target of a lot of early bullying, but that's kind of expected. General name-calling, especially since I was in the library and whatnot.


Pius Wong  6:17 

Were you like the stereotypical version of what people think computer nerds are or something?


Hector  6:25 

Yeah, pretty much. So it's like, once you're outcasted like that you have no choice but to sort of become what they expect almost.


Pius Wong  6:35 

But you found your passion. I mean, you did go to college?


Hector  6:38 

Yes. Yes, I did.


Pius Wong  6:39 

How was that? Can I ask you where you went and everything?


Hector  6:42 

Sure. I went to the University of Houston. And originally, I was pursuing my degree in Computer Engineering and Technology. But I switched to Computer Engineering.


Pius Wong  6:52 

And what's the difference?


Hector  6:53 

Honestly, technology -- like Computer Engineering and Technology primarily deals with hands-on work. It's very practical. So just measuring voltages and certain applications or troubleshooting breadboards and whatnot, like, you can expect them to do that. So it's more practical hands-on. You don't need as much theoretical to be successful at it. And it's also part of a different college. So I was part of the College of Technology at U of H and Computer Engineering was part of Cullen College of Engineering.


Pius Wong  7:24 

Then you switched, and how did that go?


Hector  7:28 

Well, I knew I wanted more of a challenge. That's primarily the reason I switched. I thought I was already doing the most that I could do. You know, I was kind of just breezing by. And so I was like, yeah, sure. Let's try doing this engineering bit. Because everyone, all my peers, were telling me that they came from engineering, and that anyone who didn't do well, at engineering ended up in technology as a result. And so it was the opposite for me. Went straight to engineering, just wanted a greater challenge. And you know, right away, I was just getting straight C's. I was not doing well. But I still enjoyed it. Because it was challenging. It was very different from what I was used to.


Pius Wong  8:09 

And why do you think you were getting C's? It was just hard?


Hector  8:14 

I honestly felt like I was doing everything on my part. But I had a tough time just focusing in class, paying attention. Practically every single period I was asleep. I could not stay awake at all in class. And that was normal for me, or like, I was used to that. But because of how rigorous that is, and how much they actually expected from you, those habits caught up with me. And so it started to quickly reflect in my grades. It was definitely a lot more work outside of class. And so normally how I would handle that if I slept in classes, I would just read a lot more outside class. But because it's so abstract, and because those examples they do in class are very important, if you're not paying attention to them moment, that book may not help you with when examples around.


Pius Wong  9:03 

How did you end up getting your degree? It sounds like you weren't doing so hot.


Hector  9:09 

Right. Yeah, I was actually put on probation. And I was suspended from engineering for a semester. And during that time, I just took math courses. I took differential equations again. Well, I say again -- they make you take Engineering Math. And that's kind of like where we go into differential equations. But I decided to just do a pure math study. And so it was a time for me to reflect and also see what I can do differently. Because I felt I was doing everything on my end, maybe it was something that I haven't considered yet. And so eventually, I stumbled upon seeing a therapist and possibly, you know, finding out more about myself, things that I probably did not know I had.


Pius Wong  9:53 

And you would say that that helped you get through your schooling.


Hector  9:58 

Oh, definitely. Because through therapy, I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, PTSD, and ADHD. And the ADHD thing was surprising. And it wasn't just because I'd always sort of mocked my dad for his ADHD tendencies, you know, but it's kind of typical, like, he can't pay attention very long, you know? There's this social stigma that's associated with mental disabilities and whatnot. And it sort of just -- I didn't understand the gravity of it until my first-hand experience with it. And through that diagnosis, I was able to enroll with disabilities, and actually succeed at being an engineer, because I quickly went from being an all-C student to getting B's and A's.


Pius Wong  10:48 

Really? And so it was very quick, very stark.


Hector  10:52 

Oh, well, okay. The last few years were like that, but quickly afterwards, there was a lot of trouble because of my misconceptions with just being with disabilities. I'm not sure who's more at fault for this. But right away, because I thought I had the diagnosis, and I was registered with disabilities, I assumed that everyone was aware of this. But a lot of the responsibility lies on the student to let the professors know that you require accommodations, the extent to those accommodations I was not made fully aware of. And so I did not have additional time on exams, and a lot of those things that you would expect of somebody with disabilities, I did not take advantage of, because I was just poorly informed, or maybe I wasn't paying attention to it. It's hard to really say at this point, but it was definitely hard. Because every single time I did not perform to expectations, I had to have a talk with the dean. And he would basically say: You don't have what it takes to be an engineer, you should quit. You know, like, they're very detail-oriented. Maybe this isn't a field for you. You really have to reconsider. And he would just leave me hanging for long periods of time, and would just be incredibly stressful.


Pius Wong  12:12 

Then how did you get over that? Because it sounds like it wasn't like this quick, instant turnaround.


Hector  12:21 

Right. So shortly after that -- because I actually got -- right away my first semester being in disabilities I actually failed a class for the first time. So that was different. Part of it was because I didn't actually get any accommodations for having my disability. And when I talked to the dean about this, he sort of brought it to my attention, told me I should have a talk with Disabilities and get that all sorted out.  I don't know. It seemed almost like a miracle, or my therapist actually said it was probably to avoid a lawsuit. But they made that grade disappear. And so it basically did not count against me. I was able to retake it. And it was as if it never happened.


Pius Wong  13:02 

Interesting. So you got a second chance anyway,


Hector  13:04 

Yes, I did have a second chance. And it was with proper accommodations. They gave me double time on exams. If I needed a quiet room or anything like that, they would usually provide that. It would vary according to professors. Some would actually give me unlimited time because they wouldn't allow me to take it at the center. So they would say, if you take it with the class, and then come with me to my office afterwards, I can give you unlimited time. They just didn't feel comfortable giving the exam to the proctors at Disabilities. And so they would usually do things of that nature.


Pius Wong  13:38 

And so then in your final years, you knew about all the accommodations that you're entitled to. You took advantage of them and you performed well.


Hector  13:48 

Yes, with therapy and medication and proper accommodations. It was a mixture of all things. Because at that time, I was still getting -- especially when I got a D -- I was still struggling with my PTSD issues and the trauma when I was younger, because -- Also part of my coming back into engineering, I had to explain why I would do better. And I had to explain that, being a former rape victim, I was still dealing with that trauma. And the dean, he seemed to really understand that issue. He was very sympathetic. He was supportive. And it's funny, because before all that, you know, I was just there waiting for the -- because after every semester, I had to talk to him and get a paper signed, and let them know that I'm still trying to get my degree and that they still have their eye on me, you know. We just have to establish that. But there is this literally -- It looked like something out of a movie where people would go in and then they would leave crying. And then you just hear a voice that's just like, "Next!"


Hector  14:03 

Oh my gosh. I shouldn't be laughing at the way you describe it. It's very dramatic.


Hector  14:59 

It was all surreal at times, because I was like, oh my goodness, I already struggle with anxiety. And to have this built up this much -- There's more at stake. Because to me, it was like the end of the world. It's engineering. It's everything I want to do. But then I'm seeing all these heartbroken people around me, you know, going through similar things. I don't know their story exactly. But to see that, their dreams dashed in an instant. Yeah, that could very well be me.


Pius Wong  15:25 

That's interesting that you bring that up. Because I'm sure that you probably weren't the only one who struggled, you know, getting a degree or studying. Did it feel like other people around you understood what was happening? Or were you more alone?


Hector  15:41 

I was pretty alone. Even in engineering, at most in a class there would be maybe two, including myself, in disabilities. Two or three, including myself. And especially when -- Because professors wouldn't be discreet about it. Like, oh, you have your extra time now. They would basically publicly announce it to everyone else, like, Hector, you need that extra time afterwards, right? Yeah. And then afterwards, everyone would would ask me, why do you get extra time? What's going on exactly? It's like, I'm with disabilities. And yeah, a lot of people would say, well, if I had extra time, I think I would do well, too. It's like, well, you don't need those accommodations. This is to make the playing field fair. This is my opportunity to show that I do have the knowledge and the skills to be successful as an engineer.


Pius Wong  16:29 

I mean, so you ended up graduating, and you were already explaining how you got that full-time job right after. And how is that going? Like, would you say that it's different from college?


Hector  16:40 

Oh, yes, it's very different from college, especially when I'm the most knowledgeable in the tech field. Because I mean, I'm ordering everything that we have there, the computers, the laptops. I draft feasibility studies for software. Because we've been looking at customer relationship management, you know, like Soho or Salesforce, those big platforms, having to draft that, and then learn how to develop for our platform as well. So studying the Microsoft API, especially when I'm in Computer Engineering. So it's almost like a minor in computer science. But my understanding does not even compare to the CS major. And so it was a huge undertaking for me. Yeah, I've always been fascinated with puzzles. So having the opportunity to just really study and provide that, you know, that's been very encouraging. And it's been a unique experience.


Pius Wong  17:33 

Yeah, like a good engineer, you're continually learning, is what it sounds like,


Hector  17:36 

Definitely. To me, that was the most important aspect of having a job. I have to feel like I'm constantly learning something and just being challenged. Otherwise, it's like, what's the point? We're supposed to make all these changes in the world. Or, you know, engineers, building these bridges, building this new technology, you know, you want to feel like you have an impact on society, or at least those directly around you.


Pius Wong  18:00 

It's interesting. You work for a nonprofit whose goal is kind of to do that, right? To help people's lives pretty directly. Do you feel fulfillment in what you do as an engineer?


Hector  18:11 

Definitely, even if it's something that normally wouldn't be considered -- like, you know, just fixing the laptop or anything. They occasionally would send me out to these low-income properties. And some of the most rewarding experiences have been just interacting with the communities, interacting with middle school students or elementary students, and they're like, oh, my laptop doesn't work. Would you have time to look at it? And, yeah, I try to make time for them, especially if I'm just working on the property computers, and just seeing their faces light up when their computer or laptop is working again. It's very rewarding. It definitely makes you feel like those years of studying was worth something beyond just the salary, you know?


Pius Wong  18:52 

Do you think that if you could do anything in your educational experience over again, is there any anything that you would have done differently or wanted different?


Hector  19:03 

I actually wish I could have gone to therapy sooner, because these have always been issues that I struggled with, but they weren't apparent until I was really put to the test with a rigorous curriculum, you know? Had I known that, like, the very first semester, just getting all C's -- that should have been a warning sign for me. But I'm pretty stubborn. And so I just told myself, I'll probably do better next semester, but I didn't and got put on probation. And you know, I was being threatened by my father. Because he's the one who actually paid for my education -- like, you need to switch now. You know, you're lazy, you won't be able to do it. Like, you may be smart enough, but when you don't have to work for it, what's the point? But to him, it was always sort of, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. He didn't really see it as that, that could be like a mental health issue, or I could require accommodations.


Pius Wong  19:57 

Wow. So your story is pretty, like -- I think it's -- what's the word? Like, I have mixed feelings about it, too, because it sounds very inspirational, in a way, but also also frightening, because you might think about all the other kids or people going through the pathway to become an engineer and doing something that they like, but maybe they have mental health issues or other obstacles, and maybe people aren't recognizing it.


Hector  20:28 

Right. And I definitely feel that this has to be pushed by individuals, on a personal level. Start there. Because even though there's already so many policies in place to protect disabled people, and to sort of encourage them to succeed in society, my professors -- like I want to say that 60% of them, they saw it as a weakness, or that I wasn't trying hard enough, even though I had all the accommodations, all the paperwork. And by the way, which is pretty ridiculous, because every semester, I had to prove that I had ADHD. So I would have to get my therapist to sign a paper that said, yes, he still has ADHD, and he will continue to have ADHD for the rest of his life. And just so that I could actually get the form for my professors to see, to give you those accommodations. So they definitely make you go through a lot of hoops. And you don't get the same sort of encouragement from everyone. So it's a constant struggle of like, should I be doing this? Was I meant to do this, having ADHD? Like, I do have trouble being focused, with attention to detail, you know? Those seem almost essential in engineering. Like, maybe I just wasn't cut out for it.


Pius Wong  21:43 

I guess one final thing that I was thinking about -- Could you think back? Is there any teacher or educational person in your life who you would consider really great, that you could describe someone who really helped you?


Hector  21:59 

Yes. Actually, my senior year, I was taking Advanced Digital Design, and Dr. -- I can never pronounce her first name. So I'm just going to spell it. Y-u-h-u-a Chen.


Pius Wong  22:01 

Y-u-h-u-a. Okay.


Hector  22:16 

And she was very encouraging. She would give me unlimited time on exams. She always sort of gave us the impression -- she wouldn't even take grades. She wouldn't let us know our grades until the end of the semester, because she just wanted to focus on: do we feel that we're progressing as an individual?


Pius Wong  22:34 



Hector  22:35 

So to have that encouragement in that sort of environment where I was in constantly stressed out on if I was outperforming my peers, you know, just focusing on: have I learned anything? It was a very, very different approach. And I really appreciate it, because she made me feel like I could do anything, almost, if I'm not comparing myself to everyone else, and just within what I've done -- then, yeah, it definitely feels like I've achieved something. I definitely feel like I'm important to this overall system.


Pius Wong  23:07 

That's really awesome.


Hector  23:08 

You know, that's just the one that I want to thank. There's this expression -- I'm paraphrasing -- but all your all the greatest teachers are the ones you never thank, and that mostly has to do with the fact that people just -- they're terrible examples in your life. They're the ones who put you down, the ones who said you couldn't do it. Oh yeah, they don't deserve thanks. But they definitely show you what you don't want to be, you know? I don't want to be the person that oppresses others or say that they can't accomplish anything. I want to encourage others. I want them to feel like they can do anything. Nothing's out of reach.


Pius Wong  23:46 

Right. Well, thank you.


Hector  23:47 

You're very welcome, Pius. It was a pleasure talking.


Pius Wong  23:50 

Yeah, I really appreciate it. Thanks. Take care.


Hector  23:53 

You too.


Pius Wong  23:53 

We'll talk again sometime.


Pius Wong  23:54 

For links to a few of the things mentioned today, check the show notes. There's info on that video game called Wolfenstein that inspired Hector as a kid, as well as links to resources on educating students with disabilities. Thanks for listening. If you have a comment for me, you can message the show on Twitter, @K12Engineering. And you can tweet me, @PiusWong. You can also follow the show on Facebook, and on Reddit in the EngineeringEducation subreddit, and in more places. Find details at the show's website, k12engineering.net. Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor under a Creative Commons Attribution license. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs, and you can support Pios Labs at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.


Pius Wong  24:57 

Thank you, thank you, thank you, to my Patreon supporters who make this show possible. There are people donating right now, which is amazing, I think a few people donating to me to help continue this podcast and other stuff that I do. I -- honestly, just putting it out there -- I am still debating whether or not I can sustain this show in the long term. And, you know, if I start making money on my video games and stuff, then I probably could. But this is still like a free project that I'm doing. And so any support that I can get through Patreon or otherwise is super helpful. It pays for not only my web hosting and streaming costs, but my literal microphone equipment, and other things that go into talking to people and visiting people and finding stories. That said, the only other piece of news that I have is that I just found out like two days ago that I got accepted into a Texas state science teachers conference to present. It's the CAST conference. If you're from Texas, you might be familiar. The Conference for the Association of Science Teachers here, this conferenc is in Houston this November, and I got accepted to present a longer workshop called Improv for Engineering Design Ideation. And it's exciting because I get to finally present to more teachers the ideas of playing fun improv games, and doing brainstorming, then doing some scene work, and then doing some drawing and predictive sketching. And I am really glad that I got accepted. So if you know that you're going to CAST and you're interested in my workshop, please just let me know. Tweet me a direct message, or send me an email: info@k12engineering.net, and just say, hey, I'm going to be a CAST. I'm interested in your workshop. Pius, you better be there. Tell me that. If I know people are interested, I am much more likely to agree to do the workshop. I definitely want to go. I know it'll be fun. Just have to consider the costs and benefits. So those are my two messages. Thanks, everybody, for supporting me on Patreon, and maybe look forward to seeing me at CAST this year in Houston.