Faces of our Community: A Journey from Community College to NASA Student Success Profile

February 19, 2018
Sergio Sandoval photo

Born in San Diego and raised in Tijuana, Sergio Sandoval barely spoke English and knew nothing about the American education system when he enrolled at San Diego City College in fall of 2011. However, thanks to the overwhelming support he received at the downtown San Diego campus, Sandoval was able to transfer to and graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Now, he’s working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston before heading to graduate school.

“San Diego City College changed my life,” Sandoval said. “It showed me that anything was possible, that I was capable of doing great things.”

Sandoval never planned on a career in the sciences. His father owned a small printing shop in Tijuana, and Sandoval figured he’d go into the family business. His friends thought otherwise.

“They said I should do something I loved. They kept telling me I was really good in math and science, so I should try engineering. I didn’t know anything about the subject, but I looked into it and it looked interesting. I loved the complexity it involves. I was convinced to find something I was passionate about, and engineering was it.”

Upon graduating from high school, Sandoval set his sights on City College, across the border. “I didn’t know what a community college was. A cousin told me about City College, so I went there to check it out. The location, the campus itself, it was just so beautiful. And the access from the trolley, the fact it was downtown, it was perfect.”

He faced more than his share of challenges along the way. Still living in Tijuana, Sandoval’s daily commute meant passing through customs at the San Ysidro pedestrian border crossing, walking to a transit center and boarding a trolley for a 45-minute ride to City College. The trek took up to three hours or more each day.

“Every single day, you ask yourself the same question: ‘Why am I doing this?’ It’s four in the morning and all you want to do is sleep, but instead you’re walking across the border and getting on a trolley, and there are no guarantees anything would ever come from this. But you have to keep telling yourself that it’s worth it and keep reminding yourself that in the end it’s going to be OK.”

It was worth it. Especially when he joined the college’s Math Engineering Science Achievement program.

“It’s a family where success and meeting your goals is the most important thing,” Sandoval said. “Everybody is so focused. Nobody is afraid to work.”

Sandoval transferred to Georgia Tech in 2013, as a recipient of the university’s Provost Scholarship program, which awards an out-of-state tuition waiver for eight semesters. Sandoval joined the school’s aerospace engineering honor society and his academic achievements were recognized with a collection of annual awards.

Sandoval just landed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he’ll spend the spring and summer working on algorithms involved with the guidance controls and landing mechanisms of the Orion spacecraft. In the fall, he begins his master’s program at San Diego State University.

Sandoval said he never imagined he could be part of the NASA family, but that he also has his eyes set on a different goal: higher education.

“I would love to become president of San Diego City College,” Sandoval said. “That would be a dream. It would allow me to pay back the school for all it’s done for me.”