Meet Diego Juarez
Cultural Groups Help Mechanical Engineering Major Find COMMUNITY and Success at U of I
Diego Juarez’s first year at the University of Idaho wasn’t easy.
He was an excellent high school student, but adjusting to life as a first-generation college student proved more challenging than he expected. In his struggles, he turned to the campus community around him and found a support system of people and organizations that helped put him on a better path.
And now, with commencement in sight next year, Juarez is dedicating his time to helping other students succeed through the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, or SHPE.
“What SHPE represents to me is all those mistakes I made that I didn’t have to, and helping students avoid that,” said Juarez, who grew up in Rupert and spent part of his childhood in Mexico. “We know that can make a big difference.”
Juarez, a fifth-year mechanical engineering major, joined with a group of other students to revitalize U of I’s SHPE organization during his sophomore year in 2011.
Now, the small but active group helps any engineering student who would like to join, Hispanic and non-Hispanic. SHPE students share textbooks and other resources, study together and attend conferences. Members who have graduated stay connected to help students find internships and prepare for their futures.
“More than anything, it’s support,” Juarez said. “It’s a family at the end of the day.”
And to bring future Vandals into the fold, U of I’s SHPE students host Noche de Ciencias, or Science Night, at a southern Idaho high school each year.
Students who attend Noche de Ciencias try out science experiments, Skype with U of I professors and check out projects built by U of I students, such as an artificial intelligence robot.
“It’s just showing them that they can study engineering, and showing them it can be fun,” Juarez said.
Juarez is particularly interested in showing kids who share his Hispanic heritage that studying science, technology, engineering and math — commonly referred to as STEM fields — is possible for them. Juarez’s parents encouraged him to attend college and he was part of a pre-engineering curriculum at Minico High School, but he knows other people from his community don’t see college as an option.
“For whatever reason, they limit themselves,” he said. “If they’re already intrigued by this stuff, why not take it a level up and become an engineer or work in another STEM field?”
In addition to SHPE, Juarez credits his professors and the cultural organizations he’s been part of with helping him find his place at U of I.
“The way the university does everything, regardless of the program, there are always professors there to help,” he said.
Juarez was able to attend U of I with help from the College Assistance Migrant Program, a federally funded program to provide financial and academic support services for students with migrant or seasonal farm work backgrounds.
“They helped me get used to the environment and get used to the mentality of working hard,” he said.
Juarez also has been active in several Hispanic cultural groups on campus, including Sabor de la Raza — a folkdance group — and Movimiento Activisita Social, or MAS, a social activism group. With MAS, he helped plan and perform in El Color de Nuestra Tiera, or The Color of Our Land, an annual Hispanic cultural showcase.
Being part of these groups helped Juarez get to know others who shared his heritage, as well as people from other cultures.
“You’re so used to being with the same type of people, and here it’s a way of expanding your horizons,” he said. At U of I, “you get to connect with people regardless of race, ethnicity or background.”
Now, Juarez is excited to earn his degree and step out into the professional world to put to work the skills he’s gained at U of I — both social and academic. He wants to spend the next five years establishing himself in the alternative energy industry.
“I feel pretty confident I could go anywhere,” he said. “I have a good background to become a leader.”