Dr. Arturo Fuentes always knew he wanted to be an engineer, but never dreamed he would become a teacher of the industry he loves, let alone receive a top award for educating future engineers.
Fuentes, who was one of six faculty members from The University of Texas-Pan American who received the 2012 UT System Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award, said he was introduced to engineering as a child by his father, who owned a consulting engineering company.
"During the weekends my dad would take me to the place where they were designing the machines and designing the structures and I said, 'Wow, I want to do this for a living,'" Fuentes, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and the Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering program assessment coordinator, said. "But at that point in time I was not considering becoming a teacher or faculty member. In fact, it was totally the opposite, I had two younger brothers who I had to help with math and science, and it took quite a lot of patience for me, and I remember telling my dad and mom I would consider becoming anything but a teacher because it requires too much patience for me."
His perception of teaching changed after he became a teaching assistant at Rice University. Fuentes realized he rather enjoyed inspiring students to learn more and become engineers.
"What I do is show my passion for engineering to my students," he said. "I love to design something for a need that somebody has and then seeing that need fulfilled... There is a pleasure of coming up with something and seeing it work and helping the students see my passion, some of them catch that passion."
Fuentes said he has received a reputation from students as being a tough teacher. It's a title he enjoys, because he knows his students are being prepared for the pressures of graduate school and careers. He's had many students touch base with him to thank him and let him know that their training helped them land jobs or gain acceptance into prestigious graduate programs.
He has also seen how the success of his students, some first-generation college graduates, has helped their families pull out of poverty. He recalled one story of a former first-generation student who had a new home built for his parents after he started working for a company as an engineer.
"To me, that is a big satisfaction, seeing that sometimes it takes one generation for families to turn around and now have a decent house for them to live in," Fuentes said. "Seeing them helping their families, seeing them move into higher positions in the companies and so forth is something very rewarding for me to see."
Fuentes' role as an educator goes far beyond the classroom. He also is the faculty supervisor for the UTPA chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), which participates in the annual Mini Baja competition. Students in the SAE are tasked with building an all-terrain vehicle that must pass a series of tests and obstacle courses in an international competition with other universities throughout the United States and Mexico.
"At the end of the day, everything that we do here as a faculty member is toward the students," Fuentes said. "Helping them develop their engineering skills, develop strong fundamentals, so they can get a job in industry or continue with graduate school and everything that we do here is to provide opportunities for them to do so."
But Fuentes understands that for some of his students, opportunities are hard to come by because of financial strains and other setbacks. In addition to pushing his students to do their best in the classroom and in extracurricular activities, Fuentes also has spent his time helping students find scholarships and other financial aid, internships and other means to help them succeed in school. He has also lent an ear to students who need to talk about the challenges they are facing.
"I don't want them to get stuck in those challenges, so providing them with the tools and, in some cases, it's the financial aid or the information to go after internships, scholarships and so forth, it is part of the role of the faculty member that I take very seriously," Fuentes said. "It's something that I feel that is part of my obligation to the students."
In letters supporting Fuentes' nomination for the Regents' Award, UTPA engineering alumni praised their former professor for pushing them to do their best and supporting them throughout their academic career.
Pedro Gonzalez III is a former student who was a member of UTPA's Society of Automotive Engineers student chapter and who worked on the mini baja project. Gonzalez, who also served as a teaching assistant of Fuentes, remarked how selfless his former educator was and how dedicated he was to his students.
"Dr. Fuentes became more than just a mentor for me, he became an inspiration to me," Gonzalez said.
Jazmin Ley, another former student of Fuentes', wrote about how she appreciated her former faculty member's advice.
"In my life, Dr. Fuentes has been a beacon of wisdom," Ley said. "He has always supported every one of my endeavors and has given me confidence in myself when I lacked it. He has been a lending ear and one of the most influential professors in my life. I am grateful for having him in my life."
Fuentes and his fellow UTPA faculty members were among 65 faculty members from academic institutions across the UT System selected to share $1.8 million in awards. Each faculty member receives a $25,000 cash award, considered one of the largest in the nation for rewarding outstanding faculty performance.
Learn more about the Regents' Award winners here.