Interviewed for the Fall 2014 ECE Current newsletter
Jose Hernández received his M.S. in ECE from UCSB in 1986. He was an astronaut for NASA during space flight STS-128 Discovery and helped establish the Reaching for the Stars Foundation to inspire young people to learn math and science.
I grew up in the Central Valley in Stockton, California, but I came from what I would call a typical migrant farm working family. To better understand how I grew up: my family is originally from Michoacán, Mexico. We would typically spend nine months here in the U.S. and three months in Mexico, and during those nine months we would make a two-day trip to Southern California from Michoacán. It took two days to drive up to the border. We used to work in the strawberry harvest. I stayed there about a month and a half, went to school Monday through Friday, but on the weekend we worked side by side with my parents picking strawberries.
The first couple of years were tough. Engineering curriculum, you know, you get all the weed-out courses: chemistry, physics, Fortran programming, calculus. You survive and then you go through your junior and senior years, then all of a sudden you get confident. At that point I knew I wanted to be an astronaut. I knew a bachelor's degree wasn't going to cut it, that I needed at least a master's degree, if not a Ph.D. I started looking at graduate programs and noticed that the electrical engineering program at UCSB was a Top 5 program. I started UCSB with a little bit of graduate work credits from Stanford so I was able to finish the [M.S.] graduate program in one calendar year. I took heavy loads, but it was the very first time I didn't have to work and go to school, so it wasn't even hard for me. All my life I had been working and going to school. This time I had a full ride fellowship to go to UCSB and even had enough money to pay my rent. I was able to finish up in one year and it was a great program. I learned a lot and developed a lot of my leadership skills as a graduate student there because I helped the undergraduate students. It was a great experience. I love Santa Barbara – it's a beautiful campus. Quite frankly, I'm not sure I would have survived as an undergraduate because the campus is so beautiful. I would want to go to the beach every day. But as a graduate student I had a little more discipline.
If you're going to embark upon a graduate program it is very, very important to align yourself with a mentor in the graduate program that you're studying in. For example, I was in electrical engineering, and Dr. Mitra is a great electrical engineer. I got into his research group, did some research for Dr. Mitra in Fourier transforms. You learn so much from someone like that, who has sort of the academic view of engineering. It gave me the ability to apply all the theoretical concepts into practical applications, which I did at Lawrence Livermore Lab. Work with someone who is doing research in your area of interest and then work your way into their lab, even if they don't pay you.
What motivates me is just motivating other kids to reach their full potential. I think one of the biggest problems with us as individuals is that we are our biggest barriers. We limit ourselves because we believe we can't overcome obstacles. I remind them: this is where I came from, this is how far I've come, and look at what I was able to accomplish through pure perseverance. You can't give up on yourself; you have to believe in yourself. When you believe in yourself, and prepare yourself, and are willing to work hard, just about any goal you set for yourself is achievable. That's what I try to instill in the kids. I see that they do listen and they do receive that very well.
I think the important thing about UC Santa Barbara, especially the College of Engineering, is that the University combines both the undergraduate programs and access to the graduate programs so that you do the academics and then you're able to do research at the same time. It is very important to involve a student as early as possible in the research process. I think that's what makes a student a bit more of an independent thinker, an originator of ideas. There is opportunity for undergraduates to get involved in research because that's putting you much further ahead than other students in critical thinking skills, analytical skills, and developing all of that can make you a better engineer.