Mechanical Engineering's Aguirre Rises to the Challenge

Challenges happen. Most everyone has them in life, some more than others. But how one reacts to a challenge can differ greatly. For Joylene Aguirre, who is entering her senior year as a mechanical engineering student at the University of San Diego, she's admittedly faced challenges, but she's neutralized them by being direct in her pursuit, asking for help when needed and being fiercely determined to succeed.

Take the research project she's worked on as a USD McNair Scholar this summer. She can describe it quickly — "I'm doing research on the determination of the inclination angle of turbulent shear flows using numerical simulation and Matlab,"— and her faculty mentor, Mechanical Engineering Professor Frank Jacobitz praised Aguirre's dedication.

"Joylene has taken on a challenging project. She needed to learn more fluid mechanics, Matlab as well as presentation skills and she's made great progress," Jacobitz said. "We are submitting her research work to the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics conference in Portland in November, the largest international meeting on general fluid mechanics and I'm glad that her work has the quality to be presented at such a meeting."

Jacobitz praised Aguirre's work in a fluid dynamics class last spring. "She did very well. It was great to hear that she is a McNair Scholar, so we started talking about the project. I gave a few lectures on basic turbulence theory over the summer to give her background. This material is typically taught in a senior elective or graduate class and Joylene took on the challenge."

Learning to Lead, Succeed

A first-generation college student and oldest of five siblings, Aguirre knew she'd be stepping into a leadership role early. She'd be creating the path for both herself and those coming behind her. Her interest in math and science put engineering on her radar.

"I knew by my junior year of high school that I wanted to study engineering," she said. "I was interested in STEM in junior high and I was good at math and science, but the applied part intrigued me. I like physics, but a lot of it is theoretical, not applied, so for me, I wanted to tackle real-world issues with the knowledge I'd have."

First though, she needed to find out how to get to college. She participated in Reality Changers, a non-profit organization started by a USD alumnus, Christopher Yanov, which works with students from low-income family backgrounds and underserved populations to steer them to college and scholarship support. Going through its College Applications Academy, Aguirre received supportive advisors who walked her through the entire process.

Aguirre also applied to UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara, but USD became a favored destination due to its small class size, ability to connect with professors and peers — including the fact that USD's engineering school far exceeds the national average for enrolled female engineering students — and more.

"I was successful in high school because I was able to approach my teachers and get help when I needed it," she said. "So I felt compelled to come here."

Entering USD in Fall 2013 when the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering debuted, Aguirre fully embraced the challenge that comes from being in one of the university's most demanding majors. Students earn a BS/BA dual degree in engineering with a healthy dose of liberal arts coursework that develops a complete engineer. The program is nine semesters (4 1/2 years), but Aguirre is slated to finish her degree in four years.

"As engineers, the basic quality is someone who is good in math and good at problem solving, but you don't always have that person who's a worldly thinker and thinking of worldly change as we have here," Aguirre said. "We have a lot of students working on Changemaker projects that aren't always concerned with the general engineering problems you think about; instead, they're more concerned with human problems we have and how can we use engineering to do that? I've really enjoyed the dual aspect of the degree."

Supportive Environment

Aguirre said she likes the USD's engineering program's supportive environment when challenges arise.

"They're well aware that it's a difficult (subject) path to take, so professors understand that you're going to have exams, homework and things going on in other classes. They are very receptive and know what's going on with their students. As a freshman and sophomore, it was easy for me to be overwhelmed by the amount of work and the challenge it posed. But I learned I didn't have to let it get out of hand. When I struggled, I knew I could approach my professors and get the help I needed. If I didn't have that support, maybe I would have dropped out of engineering, but knowing I had that support was a great way to keep me on track."

This fall, Aguirre will tackle the final hurdle for her degree when she does a senior design project. While it hasn't been determined yet — her McNair Scholars project is separate from the senior project — she's intrigued to be involved in an industry-sponsored project to learn and grow in a professional environment.

As a McNair Scholar, one of the expectations of this distinction is in line with Aguirre's academic goal of earning a PhD. The program identifies and prepares eligible students for graduate studies leading to the PhD by providing research training and early scholarly experiences to high-achieving undergraduate students. For Aguirre, it's the perfect complement to her desire to rise above any challenge.

"The challenge of all this is what keeps me going," she said. "One might think it would get easier as you go, but it gets more challenging. What has been most satisfying for me is knowing I can get over the challenge. My love of facing challenges has helped me buckle down and stay on track to finish my degree in four years."

— Ryan T. Blystone