Students thrive in program focused on diversifying undergraduate engineering at UC San Diego

First cohort of ACES Scholars graduate after completing NSF-funded program supporting students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in engineering

Xavier Perez, Yoon Jung Choi and Armando Godoy-Velasquez are members of the first cohort of ACES Scholars.

June 9, 2021--Among the more than 1,400 undergraduate engineering and computer science students earning bachelor’s degrees from the University of California San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering this year, are Xavier Perez, Yoon Jung Choi, and Armando Godoy-Velasquez, who are all members of the first cohort of ACES Scholars. Students in the National Science Foundation-funded Academic Community for Engineering Success (ACES) Scholars program are highly motivated students from economically and educationally underserved backgrounds; nearly all are Pell grant eligible, many are the first in their family to attend college, and many are women or from underrepresented groups in engineering. 

Perez, Choi and Godoy-Velasquez say their participation in the ACES Scholars program was crucial in not only helping them make it to graduation, but to leave their undergraduate years with research experience, internships, and involvement in student organizations under their belts, and offers to attend graduate school and industry careers in hand.

ACES Scholars Program

UC San Diego is one of six universities in the NSF-funded Redshirt in Engineering Consortium, which aims to support low income students through an engineering degree by intervening in the crucial first two years on campus. The program was formed in 2016, and UC San Diego’s Redshirt-funded ACES Scholars program started in the fall of 2017. The Consortium takes its name from the practice of redshirting in college athletics, with the idea of providing extra support to help promising engineering students complete a bachelor’s degree.

“This NSF funding has boosted our ability to provide comprehensive support and improve undergraduate student success here at the Jacobs School," said Pamela Cosman, the UC San Diego PI for the NSF award and a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Cosman served as Associate Dean for Students of the Jacobs School of Engineering from September 2013 to December 2016. "This NSF investment has allowed us to reach more students, and to engage with them on multiple levels, through programs administered through our IDEA Engineering Student Center."

Summer Engineering Institute at the Jacobs School

ACES Scholars receive a scholarship to participate in the IDEA Engineering Student Center's five-week Summer Engineering Institute before the fall quarter of their first year even begins. The goal of this summer program for incoming Jacobs School undergraduates is to strengthen students' technical preparation and study skills while also offering community building activities to help the students develop a supportive peer network and a familiarity with campus life. As part of the program, students take an academic enrichment course such as ENG 15 "Engineer your Success" as well as a foundational technical engineering course. 

"The Summer Engineering Institute is about building community, making friends, and focusing on the skills and strategies that set our students up for academic and personal success at the Jacobs School of Engineering," said Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering professor Olivia Graeve, who is wrapping up her service as Faculty Director of the IDEA Engineering Student Center this summer. "It's quite gratifying to see so many incoming Jacobs School students coming together through the Summer Engineering Institute. I wish this program had existed when I was an engineering undergraduate here at UC San Diego."

Faculty and Peer Mentorship

Another key component of the ACES program is mentorship. ACES Scholars are paired with a faculty mentor and peer mentor to help answer questions, direct the students to useful contacts, and provide another layer to the support network. ACES Scholars also attend weekly discussions with ACES Program advisor Jessica Baldis and their whole cohort during fall quarter, and monthly or quarterly meetings for the rest of the program.

ACES Scholars have access to professional and technical development workshops, including resume preparation help, which is particularly important because the internship cycle in engineering starts early in the year and many students have never gone through the steps needed to land an engineering internship. ACES Scholars also have access to many additional resources provided by the IDEA Center, including coding workshops, guest speakers, and scholarships. 

Below are snapshots of how the three students have thrived at the Jacobs School thanks in part to the ACES Program. 

"In different ways, each of these students made the most of, and benefited greatly from, early access to community building; research; and peer, staff and faculty mentorship," said UC San Diego nanoengineering professor Darren Lipiomi, the incoming Faculty Director of the IDEA Engineering Student Center. "The ACES Scholars program is a powerful example of how a little extra support and guidance to students at the start of their undergraduate careers can transform careers and lives."

Xavier Perez

Electrical engineering student Xavier Perez has been involved in so much on and off campus it’s hard to keep track of it all. He’s been active in groups ranging from the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers to intramural soccer; was selected as one of five UC San Diego students for the UC LEADS research program; and conducted award-winning research in Professor Vikash Gilja’s Translational Neuroengineering Lab. He credits his willingness to make these connections and seek out these opportunities to the ACES Scholars program, which helped him get his footing before school even started. 

“The Summer Engineering Institute was amazing,” Perez said. “It opened all these doors as they introduced me to the world of engineering at UC San Diego. With the two classes we got the chance to take--I took ECE5 as well as ENG10--I met the professor I have done research with up until today.”

After meeting Gilja through ECE5, Perez jumped at the opportunity to do research in his lab through the STARS and UC LEADS programs. After fielding offers from Columbia University and UC Irvine, Perez chose to pursue his PhD at UC San Diego, in none other than Gilja’s lab. He’ll be earning his doctorate in electrical engineering with a focus on medical devices and systems. 

His current research has contributed to a neurally-driven speech prosthesis, based on studying the neural activities of song birds. Perez designed a custom recording studio to record the birds’ songs that is 10 times less expensive than the existing professional installation system being used.

Aside from the SEI and meetings with his faculty mentor, Perez said the friends he made through ACES were crucial to his success.

“That’s the other part -- the ACES Scholar community helped me come to UC San Diego with a  group of friends already, which was very helpful. I still talk to all my ACES friends; I even lived with two of them off campus. Another part of the ACES program I really enjoyed was the cohort meetings we had. That was impactful in the sense that it brought us all together once a month or once a quarter such that we could see everyone all together.”
 

Yoon Jung Choi

For chemical engineering student Yoon Jung Choi, the ACES Scholars program was all about making connections. For example, her peer mentor when she first arrived at UC San Diego was an active member of Engineers for a Sustainable World. This introduction to the group and a couple of its members convinced the sustainability-focused Choi to get involved as well. She was an active member of ESW all four years, and served in leadership roles. 

Similarly, her ACES faculty mentors gave her the encouragement and know-how to reach out to her professors. She has been conducting research for the last two years in Professor Ping Liu’s lab, focused on developing new battery technologies.

“I worked on multiple research projects and I also got my name on two publications from that. From this research group I got exposure to the fundamentals of lithium ion batteries, and different experimental techniques to make them and characterize them.”

Choi also appreciated the ACES Scholars regular cohort meetings and discussions. 

“That was very helpful because it provides space for people to mingle and form a community. They also allow people to help each other, clarify concepts in classes, and just hang out with your peers. I think the Jacobs School of Engineering does a great job of forming community; ACES is a great example of that.”

Choi will intern at the NASA Glenn Research Center this summer, before heading to UC Berkeley to earn her master’s degree.

Armando Godoy-Velasquez

Armando Godoy-Velasquez was introduced to structural engineering in a rather unusual way.

“I heard about structural engineering when I was watching a Netflix show called Prison Break,’ he said. “The main character is a structural engineer so I looked it up and started researching about structural engineering, and it really interested me. I liked building things and designing things, and a couple of my family members work in construction so it’s always intrigued me.”

After learning that UC San Diego is the only school in the nation with an undergraduate structural engineering degree, his mind was made up.

It’s all come full circle for Godoy-Velasquez, who accepted a full time position as a field engineer with Turner Construction, after having interned for the company for the past year.  His current project involves, you guessed it, renovating and upgrading the electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems in a local prison. He’s also worked on commercial office renovations, and may get the opportunity to work on the new San Diego Airport terminal.

Godoy-Velasquez is more than qualified for the job. Thanks to his ACES faculty mentor, he started conducting research in the Powell Laboratory during his first year on campus.

“I worked on a project for the California Earthquake Agency, researching how homes built before the 1980s were prone to more damage during earthquakes,” Godoy-Velasquez said. “So we built walls inside the Powell Lab, then tested them against earthquakes and studied their performance. Then we rebuilt them reinforced with plywood sheeting and compared the differences in performance with reinforcement and without reinforcement.”

During his time at UC San Diego, Godoy-Velasquez played on the men’s club soccer team, was a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, was a member of SHPE, and also joined the Associated Schools of Construction Design-Build project team. Their project was sponsored by Clarke Construction company, which was building the new Sixth College at UC San Diego, so a lot of their homework was based off those real, current, plans. 

In addition to his ACES faculty mentor providing an early research opportunity, Godoy-Velasquez said the Summer Engineering Institute was also critical to his success. 

“SEI was a really crucial program for me. I’m still friends with everyone I met in SEI; that’s pretty much been my main study group in college. When I started off my first quarter after SEI, I felt like I wasn’t a freshman. That was thanks to SEI, all the workshops we had, I felt like I’d been there for a year already.”

He had such a positive experience that he returned the following year as a peer facilitator to help incoming students get the same jump start that he did. 

“The peer mentors during my SEI year were really cool, and I still keep in touch with them. They helped me out even after SEI. Being able to give that back to incoming students was really great.”

Media Contacts

Katherine Connor
Jacobs School of Engineering
858-534-8374
khconnor@eng.ucsd.edu

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