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Career as a NASA Engineer? This Fresno Teen Shoots for the Stars

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Angelica Sandez studies at Career Technical Education Charter High School in Fresno. (GV Wire/Nancy Price)
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Angelica Sandez wants to study aerospace or mechanical engineering at the Imperial College London in England after she graduates this spring from Career Technical Education Charter High School in Fresno.

The school’s “secret weapon” is the partnership CTEC has with its parents. — Brian Emerson, CTEC instructor of engineering and advanced manufacturing

Her dad is still struggling with the idea that his youngest child could wind up at a college half a world away. In Sergio Sandez’s traditional Mexican culture, children — especially girls — are supposed to stay close to home and family.

And it was only a few years ago that he negotiated a work schedule at his new job so that he could drive Angelica to and from school every day because he didn’t trust Fresno’s bus system with his precious daughter.

But Sandez also wants Angelica to be able to achieve her goal of becoming a NASA engineer, and so he’s reluctantly coming to grips with the possibility that she could fly far from the nest.

Angelica, a member of CTEC High School’s inaugural class, is scheduled to collect her diploma this spring. Because of dual enrollment courses, she will already have earned an associate’s degree in industrial technology from Fresno City College. Ironically, she’ll collect that degree about a week before she walks across the stage at her high school commencement, which also will be held at Fresno City, said Brian Emerson, CTEC’s instructor of engineering and advanced manufacturing.

That means Angelica will be halfway through college before she even sets foot on a campus.

She seems to be a bit of an Anglophile — in addition to Imperial College London, she’s applying to universities in Cambridge, Bristol, Bath, Birmingham, and Nottingham. Stateside, she’s readying her applications to San Diego State, UC Berkeley, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and the Illinois Institute of Technology. She’s already been admitted to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Angelica’s the captain of the robotics club that had two teams heading for the state competition in 2020 but had to stay home when the competition was canceled because of COVID-19. The school’s two teams recently competed in a robotics competition in Dublin, finishing fourth and ninth out of 20 teams in the Division 1 rankings. Team A received the Judges Award.

CTEC, which is chartered by the Fresno County Office of the Superintendent of Schools, has two pathways and an enrollment capacity of 480 students. The school hasn’t had to resort to a lottery yet, however, Emerson said. Enrollment was starting to build after the first two years of operation, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. With schools reopened, and as the school’s reputation continues to grow, Emerson said he expects enrollments will likewise grow and the lottery will be needed.

About a third of the students at CTEC are girls, which is about double the number of women who work in manufacturing and construction, Emerson said.

School Ad at Movie Theater Caught Her Eye

Angelica was a student at Computech Middle School when she spotted an ad for CTEC in the movie theater before a showing of “Black Panther.” She was already leaning away from attending Edison High — she didn’t want to go into computer science — and CTEC seemed to have more of what she was looking for. Her parents had always supported her school choices, once they learned her reasoning.

And they’ve certainly encouraged her to have big dreams.

They weren’t quite so open initially to her plans to study overseas, however. Although she had dropped hints, her parents didn’t realize she was serious until Emerson told them he’d written her recommendation letter.

“And then they were like, ‘Um, you didn’t tell us about this.’ And I was like, ‘I did, you just didn’t believe me.’ So I guess they kind that they were kind of in shock that I was actually going through with it,” she said.

Although her dad has been slow to warm up to the idea of his youngest child heading “over the pond,” Angelica says she’s looking forward to it — even though she’s never flown before.

She’s already acclimating herself to British culture, such as the differences in spelling certain words (colour and honour instead of color and honor, for example), and learning different names for auto parts and elevators. She’s readjusted her cell phone to record temperatures in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit and switched her region to the UK.

But that caused a bit of a surprise when Siri took on a new accent.

“I was using Google Maps the other day, and I didn’t know that changing the region would change the voice,” she said. “So it started talking at me, it was a female with a British accent, and I got kind of scared and then I realized what I did. So like, OK, I’m fine. But I thought I broke my phone.”

‘You Want More for Your Kids’

Sergio Sandez said he’s slowly coming around to the idea of his daughter attending college in England, although that didn’t stop him from taking surveys of fellow restaurant patrons and church members — the majority of whom sided with Angelica’s overseas choice.

“You know, we’re not all the same. We’re all different — different people, different mind, different heart, different way of seeing things, and when we understand that, that’s when we start growing and evolving into the person that we need to be.” — Sergio Sandez

He playfully covers his daughter’s ears while Emerson relates a 2018 study that shows Imperial College’s female graduates earn a third more than average female graduates.

Emerson hasn’t just been teaching Angelica and her classmates about manufacturing and construction. He’s also preparing them for what to expect if they choose science and technology career fields, where women are still in the minority.

“He would tell us that it would be difficult for us, the girls in the class, that when we grew up and we go into the place where we want to go, that it would be difficult for us because it’s an industry dominated by men,” Angelica said. “And he kind of just reassured us that we have to be confident in ourselves and just know our value and stand up for what we believe in, and we will be fine.”

Emerson’s mentorship has been important to Angelica and also to her father. With the support, mentoring, and encouragement that the CTEC faculty and staff have shown for Angelica and other students, the high school has been like an extension of the Sandez family, Sergio Sandez said.

His own education was cut short at age 14 when he quit school to start working and help his family. Sandez, a native of Mexico, grew up in Los Angeles. He wasn’t mentored by his teachers like Angelica has been mentored at CTEC.

“I don’t remember a single teacher telling me I could do better. I don’t remember a single teacher telling me, stay in school,” he said. “We were like going through the motions. … I didn’t have the opportunity to graduate, but my friends were graduating and didn’t even know how to read.”

Initially, Sandez said, he didn’t want Angelica to attend CTEC because of its construction pathway. He’s worked in construction his whole life and didn’t want his daughter to endure “back-breaking” jobs.

“But you want more for your kids and I guess I just took it by faith,” he said. “And it was the best decision I have ever made.”

Wanting more for their children seems to be a family tradition: Sandez said he asked his mother once why she decided to move the family from Mexico to California, where as a single parent she had to work three jobs to make ends meet for the family.

“She said, ‘I wanted a better life for you,’ ” he recalled.

But tradition and culture can run deep, and Sandez said he’s had to struggle with not letting them hold his daughter back.

“And this is the thing that has to break, in a way, because we’re set and prepared to follow culture, not understanding that it’s not about culture, it’s about you, who you are, who you want to become, what are your goals? Because culture can hold you back, culture can hurt you. Because we have this mind that is set and things that we were taught, and we have to admit that we were wrong.

“You know, we’re not all the same. We’re all different — different people, different mind, different heart, different way of seeing things, and when we understand that, that’s when we start growing and evolving into the person that we need to be.”

Education Overcomes Poverty

CTEC Brian Emerson

CTEC instructor Brian Emerson

Like Sandez, Emerson said he didn’t have high school teachers who connected with him or challenged him to go further. Like many of his CTEC students, he grew up in poverty — his mother was a migrant worker who came to California from Oklahoma, his father a “jack of all trades” who would eventually own his own construction business. Some of his earliest memories are of being in an orange grove at age 2 or 3 while his mother picked fruit nearby.

Emerson said he did well in math and science and wound up with a full-ride scholarship to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Although he had the academic preparation, he lacked the maturity and willpower to get to class or turn in assignments on time — and lost the scholarship when he flunked out in his freshman year.

He thought as a high schooler that he would be an architect, since he had had classes in architectural and mechanical drafting. Those classes stood him in good stead for years of employment until he finally figured out what he wanted to do — teach high school science — and figured out how to get there.

But it took plenty of hard work and perseverance, which he tells his students they will need to be successful, whether they go into the work world from CTEC or on to college. The CTEC program is academically rigorous — students take two college classes in their first semester, with more to come in succeeding semesters — and Emerson said he makes sure they’re also learning life skills: “You can’t show up late to work, you can’t do a mediocre job and expect to keep your job. And so that work ethic is really a core of our program here in CTEC.”

Unlike two-year career-tech programs, CTEC students are in their pathway from Day 1 as freshmen, Emerson said. As a result, students get deeper dives into learning about technology, machinery, and still have time for full-time internships for seniors, he said.

School officials estimate about 25% to 30% of CTEC’s graduates plan to go on to college like Angelica. But there’s no longer the expectation that students need to go on to college to have a “better life,” since skilled plumbers, welders, electricians, and carpenters can make a solid living, with enough money to support a family and have a home, Emerson said.

“I think that our students are getting a really good breadth of understanding that they can get those skills … and pursue those opportunities without necessarily attending college for college’s sake,” he said.

If CTEC has been a success, it’s due to a combination of factors, Emerson said: Strong industry involvement, student commitment, and a sense of “family” among the 27 faculty members and dozen or so other staffers.

But the school’s “secret weapon” is the partnership CTEC has with its parents, he said.

“The more we can know about the students, about what’s going on at home, about the interactions, about their pasts, the better opportunity we have to connect with them and give them the knowledge that they need in a way that they can understand and utilize. And if the knowledge that we’re putting out isn’t seen as necessary or important, it’s very hard to communicate with those children. And having parents on our side that go home and say, ‘Hey, no, this is important, listen to your teacher, do what they’re saying,’ and helping us by saying, ‘What do you need? How can we help?’ It’s a great benefit and it’s a great partnership.”

A whiteboard in a CTEC classroom. (GV Wire/Nancy Price)

Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email

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