As a high school dropout, Luis never expected to earn a degree, but he recently graduated from the Mechanical Maintenance Engineering (MME) associate degree program at RSI. Luis, 39, first graduated with Honors from the Electro-Mechanical Technologies (EMT) program in June 2016. In fact he won the Presidential Award at graduation before returning to complete his associate degree online.
Thanks for sharing your story Luis. Did you plan on doing the MME degree when you first enrolled?
No. Initially I just enrolled in the nine month EMT program. During that program I decided it would be beneficial to try to get my associate’s degree. I graduated the EMT program in June 2016 and started the MME program less than 30 days later.
Tell us a little about your background before coming to RSI.
After dropping out of high school as a freshman, I went straight into the workforce. I did a lot of basic jobs from delivering pizza to working in fast food. I did some shipping & receiving jobs, and then decided that I wanted to do something with my hands and get a skill set. I was fortunate enough to start working for different apartment complexes as a general maintenance guy. I really enjoyed fixing things and found that I had a knack for it! I did that for about 10 years prior to enrolling at RSI.
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Why did you decide to go back to school?
I’d basically reached a pinnacle in the amount of money I could earn working in maintenance – about $15-$17 an hour. I couldn’t get past that because I didn’t have any degrees or certificates. I was 37 with no education, and I was frustrated with the fact that, technically speaking, I had about 10 years under my belt, but I was being told that I didn’t deserve to be paid more because of the skill set I had.
The second reason was that I was chemically dependent at the time. I was drinking alcohol, and it wasn’t a good situation. I didn’t have a bright future and was slipping downhill. I wanted to change things around so I decided to get my GED.
How easy was getting your GED at 37?
It was very difficult for me. I hadn’t put my head in a book for 20 years. I knew nothing; I’d forgotten everything. It was difficult starting out fresh. I really had to learn the basics of reading, writing, history, math…everything again. It took close to four months to get my GED. Once I got it I knew I wanted to attend trade school, so I started looking around.
Did you get clean and sober too?
I did. Back in 2015 when my wife was pregnant with our son, I’d had enough. It was time to clean up. I wanted to break the cycle of dependency. I decided enough was enough and stopped drinking.
After getting your GED, why did you choose RSI?
I was really impressed with the campus and all the different types of equipment that you’re allowed to work on – all different sizes from residential units to commercial units, ice makers, refrigerators, chillers – there’s all sorts of stuff. I knew this was the school that I wanted to attend, so I enrolled.
Did your previous maintenance jobs include HVAC work?
They did if I could handle the job. Of course I’d get calls that an air conditioner is down, and could I fix it? I learned how to work on some electrical items. I could change out thermostats and fuses, but if I had to get into the unit and start digging around, it was like a maze. I didn’t know where to start.
With some minimal experience in the field, how did you approach coming to RSI?
I really wanted to learn. Out in the field you learn from different people, and you could learn the wrong techniques and processes. I’d heard a lot of different things from a lot of different people, so I really wanted concrete answers. I was actually surprised how detailed and specific it can get. I had no comprehension that it could be so technical. I left RSI feeling armed. I felt confident that I had a degree, and empowered that I had a wealth of knowledge. With no fear I could walk up to an air conditioner and know where to start. They give you a sound base to say this is step one, step two, step three. Once you go through the steps, the problem will show itself. It will pop out like a sore thumb.
Did you work while studying at RSI?
I worked full-time as a facilities tech at a hotel in Flagstaff. I was living in Phoenix, going to school five days a week. Then on weekends I worked two 16 hour shifts on Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes, I’d do the three hour drive after work, other days when I just couldn’t do it I’d sleep on my buddy’s couch in Flagstaff. I did that for the entire nine months of the EMT program.
What was your favorite thing about RSI?
The fact that RSI was absolutely instrumental in helping me land my job. My employer, Intel Corporation, is phenomenal. RSI helped me put together a legitimate résumé. They helped with the interview process, and they even furnished Intel with my résumé when they called for applicants. I never initially applied to Intel! Besides all the technical information they taught me, the fact that they were so instrumental in helping me land this job is my favorite thing. That one thing changed my life forever… without a doubt.
What’s your role at Intel?
I’m a facilities technician/plant operator. My role at Intel is to support the Fab [fabrication plant] in Chandler; it’s a research and development building. For example, I help make sure that the air in the clean room is to spec – making sure the air quality is absolutely pristine. The water has to be the purest water on the planet, and of course the heating and cooling throughout the building.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
If you’ve ever fixed anything, there’s a profound sense of gratification once you’ve found the problem or see the fruits of your labor. It can’t really be described, but it’s very empowering.
It sounds like you’ve landed your dream job?
I sure did without a doubt. When I interviewed for the job, I was shown the property, and it’s the most sophisticated, technologically advanced facility that I’ve ever seen. I think one of the qualities they really liked about me is that I was extremely excited to just see the plant, let alone maybe have the opportunity to work on some of that equipment. The chillers are just giant. The air handlers are so huge they’re like little houses. It’s beyond the scope of most people’s imagination.
It’s all computerized; I sit at my desk and can see exactly what’s going on in every system. I can see pressures, temperatures, and flows. If something was to start to fail, we can see it. On top of that, they have redundancies throughout the entire plant. Getting this job was a life changing event for me.
You’ve been at Intel since June. Did you break that pay ceiling you’d hit in previous jobs?
I’ve exceeded that considerably. My base pay is very competitive for a plant operator. Since I work the night shift, Intel also offers a competitive shift differential. But, besides that, their benefit package is phenomenal and starts on day one. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard of. The medical, dental, and vacation benefits are all phenomenal.
Did you do anything special with your improved paycheck?
We went out to a nice steak house on my [EMT program] graduation night. That night I also knew that I’d landed the Intel job, so it was an extra special evening. In December last year I took the family on an incredible vacation, and I’ve also put a house under contract. We’re waiting on escrow for our first home ever. I was able to qualify just on my income! Things have really turned around for us!
What’s your career plan?
I’d like to retire at Intel. But let’s be realistic, it’s corporate America and there will be downturns that may include downsizing or layoffs. Intel is no exception to that. So my plan is to retire at Intel but also grow my own personal business. I want to do both. As soon as I get my contractor’s license later this year, I want to get out there and get some long-term service agreements on commercial accounts. That’s my goal. I’ll slowly grow the business. I don’t have to withdraw any money because of my Intel salary, so I can reinvest all that back into the business with vehicles, tools and employees.
What advice would you give to prospective students considering attending RSI?
Whatever you’re facing in your life, try to overcome it. There is light at the end of the tunnel. There are ways to improve your own situation. You just have to stay positive and keep on trying. If you get knocked down, get back up. Every building on this planet has some kind of heating or cooling; that is job security right there. You’ll never, ever, be out of a job. HVAC is a very strong, stable career to get into. If you like working with your hands, you’ll love the HVAC industry.
Tell us about your family?
My wife, Francis, and I have been married 17 years in July. We’ve had some up and downs. We separated for almost two years in 2009, but we got through it. We were able to work it out and we came back stronger than ever. We have two daughters aged 10 and 9, a 2 year old son, and a baby on the way!
Congratulations! What do you do for fun, Luis?
It’s always fun to do family trips and stuff, but my personal passion is mountain biking. I really enjoy the excitement of doing semi-extreme mountain biking, whether down-hilling or even climbing a hill. I found some really nice trails up in Flagstaff.
Things have really turned around for you in two years.
They really have. I have an overwhelming internal joy that’s really hard to explain. You have to be in a dark spot and get out of it to really feel that joy. I did bust my butt off. I was working and going to school seven days a week for nine months, but then to have landed an amazing job and complete my associate’s degree, I can’t ask for anything more. I’m very blessed, and I can’t emphasize enough how instrumental RSI has been in this turnaround. If it wasn’t for RSI, I wouldn’t be where I am today. And for that I want to thank them personally.
If you’re an RSI graduate and would like to share your success and be an inspiration to others, please email [email protected] to be considered for a Graduate Connection interview. Please include details such as your full name, your graduation date (month/year) and program name.