Nontraditional student fuses passion for music with engineering

Published by Rachel Arceo on

Outstanding Student Award recipient and engineering transfer student, Hector Cardenas, does not relish the spotlight. When he was nominated for an outstanding student achievement award, some aggressive cajoling was involved to convince this remote student to drive from his present home in Portland to attend the 2022 student achievement ceremony at UCC.

“I told Hector he better come!” Destiny Hunt, TOP coordinator and advisor, said in a stern tone followed by a light laugh.

Cardenas is a nontraditional 4.0 student, TOP tutor, engineering club member, and soon, a UCC 2022 graduate with an associate’s degree; he is set to go to Portland State to major in computer engineering next year. But he wasn’t always this motivated.

Finding support and an avenue for his passions

Hector Cardenas laughs while he visits his old stomping ground of the Trio student center where he often tutored.
Rachel Arceo / The Mainstream

“Being a student wasn’t initially my plan,” Cardenas says.

In spring of 2020 when many businesses were shutting down due to the pandemic, Cardenas found himself in California, unemployed in Los Angeles, with a lot of spare time. He had just started dating his long-time friend and present partner, Kendall, when they visited his partner’s family in Roseburg. It was on that visit Cardenas and his partner decided to relocate to Douglas County.

Originally, Cardenas worked at Allen and Allen construction, while his immuno-compromised partner, for lack of safe work opportunities, decided to attend UCC to earn their degree in social work. Cardenas then started to notice the support Kendall was receiving from the school.

“I just saw how much support they got from TRIO, and TOP and UCC in general. Seeing how supportive the environment was made me reconsider going to school,” Cardenas says.

“I knew I wanted to go into electrical engineering, but I didn’t know how far it was going to go until I started taking those classes. Then it just clicked that it was a) something I wanted to be doing and b) something I could achieve,” Cardenas says.

Cardenas had attempted college twice before with much less success. “I don’t think I was ready. I didn’t have a reason to be there. I had always heard, ‘you need to get a degree’ but I didn’t because I was never going for myself.”

“The first time I tried college, I was trying to live up to other people’s expectations. The first time I went pre-med and realized I did not like that at all,” Cardenas says. “I didn’t have the motivation to go for myself; I always went for other people. What ends up happening is it doesn’t work, I get burned-out.”

Cardenas also notes that he felt invisible when he first attempted college at a larger university, and he wasn’t sure how to interact with his professors. “The level of support I was getting at a big college was virtually nonexistent,” Cardenas says.

At UCC, Cardenas had a much different experience.

“All the professors I had, every single one of them, I got the feeling that they were genuinely invested in their students. I never felt out of place sending an email, whether it was ‘hey something came up’ or something else, I never felt I was bothering them,” Cardenas says.

Engineering and… music?

Cardenas’ interest in engineering is an extension of his long held passion for music. “I am a nerd that likes music,” Cardenas says. “I’ve always been into tech and math and science.”

“I’m going for electrical and computer engineering, but my end goal is to design electronic instruments,” Cardenas says.

“Music has been a part of my life since forever. As I grew up, a particular interest was music technology, like synthesizers, or programs, or old audio gear you can mess around with, that sorta stuff,” Cardenas says.

“I was really getting into modular synthesizers, which are basically build your own synthesizers; you can rearrange them and rewire them together; that was a catalyst for coming back to school. I thought ‘I’d love to learn how this works,’” Cardenas says.

Hector Cardenas receives his second outstanding student award nomination for his final year at UCC.
Rachel Arceo / The Mainstream

Although Cardenas is passionate about music, he keeps his music more personal, often shying away from recording or monetizing what he creates.

“Music isn’t really a product oriented thing for me. I just like messing around and creating different sounds and noises and creating my own little world.

“Kendall has been trying to get me to be more open to the world with my music, and we have written a couple of songs together, but predominantly what I do with music is mess around and play,” Cardenas says with self-deprecating laughter as he struggles to explain.

“Music is freeing. I stop thinking about things; it becomes instinctual instead. You get into a flow state, as opposed to worrying about x, y, z. All of a sudden you lose track of time, and it’s three hours later,” Cardenas says.

Giving back as a remote student

Although Cardenas originally lived in Sutherlin when he started UCC, he had to negotiate an accelerated move to Portland at the end of the 2021 fall term.

“I stayed in an empty house, for my chem final,” Cardenas says. Cardenas slept on the floor of his former home to finish the term while his partner moved to their present location. He still managed to keep his good grades.

While Cardenas is quick to acknowledge the support he received, professors and advisors say he gives right back. For example, he has given one-on-one mentoring for over ten different students, many of whom had to be tutored remotely.

“Getting to know Hector over the past year has been fantastic. Not only is he a driven and engaged student, but he has served as a work-study and tutor for our program,” Hunt, transfer opportunity coordinator and advisor said in an email.

“I can always depend on him to rise to any challenge and be excited to learn a new skill no matter what idea I throw at him. I am thrilled to see him move on to his next steps, even if I will miss his ability to converse on any topic under the sun,” Hunt said.

As Cardenas moved during the end of fall term, many of his school activities were on-line or done on Zoom. Assistant professor of engineering and Engineering Club advisor, Wayne Fischer, has never met Cardenas in person but still has positive memories of his remote student.

“Hector’s enthusiasm for Electrical Engineering makes him stand out,” Fischer said. “This enthusiasm was demonstrated in his interest in getting the Engineering Club up and running, so that future students will have a space to build projects and learn engineering design and manufacturing skills. 

“With his efforts, along with Josh Corrington, the Engineering Club was reinstated this year, and a design proposal that Hector created was accepted,” Fischer said.

How to do as Hector does

Cardenas went quiet to reflect on how he achieved a significant change from his previous attempts at school, to his current dedication.

“When I first I went to college, I felt like it was an obligation, and I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I didn’t have a reason to be there,” Cardenas says. “But this time I a) had a goal and b) I saw school more as a resource that I am paying for. I have all these professors that want me to succeed and want me to engage in the material and talk to them.

“I’ve been doing that a lot more and it has definitely helped with my success. If I don’t understand something or even if it’s something outside of class, even something tangentially related, I’m much better about asking “hey can I talk to you about this.”

“All the teachers at UCC have been super supportive and welcoming like ‘yes, ask’; that has been instrumental to me,” Cardenas says.

Cardenas offers this advice: “You are paying for college. You may as well use what you are paying for, which is, ultimately, the professor’s experience.”

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