McNair Scholar Overcomes Early Hurdles on Path to Graduation

Engineering graduate Luis Valenzuela credits a meeting with Winny Dong, director of the McNair Scholars program with opening the door to his future.
Engineering graduate Luis Valenzuela credits a meeting with Winny Dong, director of the McNair Scholars program with opening the door to his future.

Luis Valenzuela grew up in a low-income section of Pomona and, like most of the students at his high school, his parents did not go to college.

It was a meeting with Winny Dong, director of the Cal Poly Pomona McNair Scholars program, that opened the door to his future.

“If not for Dr. Dong, I wouldn’t have done half the things I have been able to do,” says Valenzuela, who will attend UC Santa Barbara in the fall for a joint master’s and Ph.D. program in electrical and computer engineering.

Valenzuela, a senior electrical engineering student, credits Dong with steering him toward the McNair Scholars program, helping him succeed academically and encouraging him to apply for summer research opportunities. His most memorable experience was a 10-week CAMPARE summer research program in which he worked on an automatic rock and mineral analyzing tool for future planetary rovers.

When Valenzuela first met Dong, she asked if he would be interested in the McNair Scholars program, which prepares first-generation, low-income students from underrepresented minorities for Ph.D. programs through research, faculty mentorship and skill-building workshops.class-of-2016

She not only encouraged him to apply, but also continued to provide support and encouragement.

“She always tried to make students feel really comfortable with themselves, especially those who had doubts about whether they were good enough to be where they were,” Valenzuela says. “She taught us that with all of our hard work, we deserved to succeed.”

Three years after being a McNair Scholar, Valenzuela still received emails from Dong encouraging him to apply for special programs and research opportunities.

“That really meant a lot — for her to be actually thinking about me while looking at these opportunities,” Valenzuela says. “It shows she really cares about her students not just during the McNair term, but afterwards as well. She is always on the lookout for us, trying to make sure we’re doing OK.”

Dong says Valenzuela shows what is possible through hard work and dedication.

“For students like Luis, all faculty members have to do is to share with them the resources and opportunities that are available,” she says. “But what impresses me the most about Luis is his kindness — for all that he has achieved, he is above all a thoughtful and kind person. He is a wonderful role model.”

While Valenzuela’s goal is to become a professor at a university where he can conduct research, his experience with Dong and as a McNair Scholar might bring him back to Cal Poly Pomona so he can help instill the culture of research into other first-generation underrepresented college students.

“It’s really important for students to have a person who has already been there and done that to talk to them and try and get to know them and guide them in a path that might help them achieve what they really want to do,” Valenzuela says.

Story by Elaine Regus, Special to PolyCentric