Derek Salazar grew up in Espanola, New Mexico, attended Los Alamos High School, and enrolled in the University of New Mexico – Los Alamos soon after graduation. He was interested in pursuing an Information Technology with Cybersecurity degree, but thanks to his decision to join the Accelerate program and two internships at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), he found himself pursuing computer engineering – a 4-year degree that he had never previously considered.
Accelerate is a pilot program of the Regional Development Corporation in collaboration with six northern New Mexico colleges, including the University of New Mexico – Los Alamos (UNM-LA). Funded by a five year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy/Office of Environmental Management, the program aims to increase retention, career readiness, and certificate and 2-year technical degree completion of non-traditional students in northern New Mexico. More than 500 students have been served by Accelerate to date.
Throughout the academic year, the Accelerate program’s Career Technical Advisors (CTA) serve as coaches, advisors, and mentors to help students navigate through any issue that might affect their school work. They also help students find internship opportunities and facilitate career readiness training to prepare students for the workforce.
As soon as he enrolled at UNM-Los Alamos, Grace Willerton, the Accelerate program’s CTA on campus, began sending him email messages encouraging him to join the Accelerate program. The stipends students earn for their participation in career readiness training and internships with local employers got his attention.
In 2014, Grace helped Derek apply for a National Science Foundation summer internship opportunity with the Software and Application Engineering Division at LANL. When his internship supervisor left for a scheduled vacation during the final weeks of the internship, she asked Steve Torres, another team member in the same department, to look in on him. Steve took Derek under his wing and worked with him for several weeks introducing him to SQL Server database administration. Even though Derek had little previous background in the field, Steve noted that he was inquisitive and caught on quickly. Derek learned a lot, and because of the internship he changed his major to Computer Engineering.
Derek and Steve stayed in touch, and in the fall of 2014 when Derek found out that the Accelerate program would pay him to intern with the company of his choice, Derek contacted Steve and asked if he could continue to work with him. The answer was yes, and this time around Steve added some more advanced assignments to Derek’s duties. Steve says, “I gave Derek the opportunity to directly interact with our customers, and he is very good at it. I also tried to introduce him to other people at the labs who could help to shape his future.”
After the Accelerate internship was completed, Steve agreed to continue mentoring Derek through the LANL undergraduate program. Now Derek has a work plan in place until December of 2015. In addition to his work on SQL server databases, the plan includes work on Oracle database administration.
Both student and mentor have gotten a lot out of the working relationship. According to Derek, “Joining the Accelerate program was my way into the Lab. I couldn’t be more thankful to Grace and Steve for their support and mentoring.” Steve, who has never supervised a student intern before, finds that his role as mentor adds a fulfilling new dimension to his day. “I want to help Derek to open as many doors as possible. I come home from work and I feel good,” he says.
Thanks to Accelerate and LANL, Derek has been given a great opportunity and now it’s up to him to take advantage of it. Both Grace and Steve have no doubt that he will.