One month into their first semester, new UA College of Engineering undergraduates are working in research labs, writing columns on technology, participating in clubs and tutoring kids. They bring disparate backgrounds, experiences, skills and perspectives -- but a singular passion for science, technology, engineering and math.
Tucson native Stanley Wong knew he wanted to attend the UA, but not for engineering.
“I originally wanted to go into environmental science and biochemistry,” said Wong, who won a Flinn Scholarship. “But as a high school senior and during the summer, I did the UA KEYS Research Internship program. It was there I learned chemical and environmental engineering was even a thing.”
Through KEYS, Wong conducted research in UA professor Jim Field’s lab on the environmental impacts of pharmaceuticals and military explosives. He continues working in the lab as a freshman.
More than 275 of this year’s freshman engineering students completed the College’s ENGR 102 High School course, an adaptation of the introductory engineering course required of most UA freshman engineers that they took at their own schools.
Others got immersed and inspired through corporate-sponsored STEM initiatives like Raytheon’s Imagine Your STEM Future mentoring program for girls.
First-year Wildcats Jasmine Aguilar and Zcheecid Aguirre did the program as seniors at Tucson’s Desert View High School.
“They made me feel at home in the program, and more specifically, the STEM field,” Aguilar said. “I was alongside girls who wanted to be in the field, too, so I never felt that I couldn’t be in STEM, or -- even more so -- succeed in it.”
Aguirre got started in STEM -- and the biomedical engineering bug -- earlier, in a Raytheon summer camp she attended after sixth grade.
“Right off the bat, it drew me in, being that it combined some of my favorite things: Building things, human anatomy and problem solving,” she said. She has since worked in a UA biomedical engineering lab through the KEYS program.
Aguirre is one of five UA College of Engineering freshmen -- and one of 10 freshmen across the University -- to win Flinn Scholarships. Given for academic achievement and leadership, the awards provide more than $115,000 to cover four years of tuition and room and board at one of Arizona’s three public universities.
“Growing up in a Hispanic community, there are racial stigmas, financial hardships and, for us women, gender stereotypes that can weigh us down and make it hard to say ‘I can make it,’” said Aguirre, a UA National Hispanic Scholar. “Something that drives me now is thinking about four years down the road, when I have my degree, and can finally look upon my nana’s face and tell her, ‘Look, I did make it.”
Another new Flinn Scholar in the College also showed great fortitude in the face of obstacles. Nizhonabah Davis’s rural home on the Navajo Nation lacked internet access, so she gave her interview for the Flinn Scholarship via Skype at Ganado High School. She was her class valedictorian and participated in the UA’s Native American Science and Engineering Program, New Start and other STEM outreach programs before starting college.
“They really helped me get outside my comfort zone and made me comfortable with being on my own,” said Davis, a member of UA’s Blue Chip Leadership program who is active in the UA chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and looking at several other engineering student organizations.
The College of Engineering also welcomes two other new Flinn Scholars: Amanda Bertsch, her class valedictorian at Tri-City College Prep High School in Prescott, Arizona; and Paxton Tomooka, former captain of the tennis and basketball teams at Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix.
Many of the College’s undergraduates are transfer students.
“I initially started at the UA in journalism,” said Brian Winkler, of Columbus, Ohio, who transferred from Pima Community College. “I’ve always enjoyed writing. But as time wore on, I frequently put off schoolwork for projects I was working on, tinkering with and building small electric devices. I realized that while I really enjoyed writing, I truly loved designing and building things. That’s when I made the switch to electrical and computer engineering, and not a day goes by where I question or regret it.”
Winkler writes a weekly column, “Tech Corner” for the Arizona Daily Wildcat student newspaper.
Ghazal Moghaddami and her mother, Neda Ahmadi, transferred from engineering programs at Wichita State University to join Ghazal’s father, a nurse practitioner, in Tucson.
Ghazal is a junior in biomedical engineering who tutors middle-school youth in her spare time. Her mother taught public school in Iran for more than 20 years before starting Wichita State’s program in mechanical engineering in 2013 to pursue a lifelong interest in computer programming and mathematics. She is now a UA junior in mechanical engineering.
The pair shares some of the same classes, like Introductory Computer Programming. “We go to class together, talk about it and help each other out,” Ghazal said. “In class, we feel more like friends and classmates than mother and daughter.”
“Not many people experience going to school with their daughter,” Ahmadi said. “I'm loving every second of it.”