Illumina engineer guides recent SDSU graduate toward a dream career
By Michael Klitzing
After graduating from San Diego State University in December with a degree in bioengineering, Edgar Ramirez is looking to launch his dream career in the medical device field.
Thanks to the connections he made through Michelle Vargas, whom he was paired with through SDSU’s Aztec Mentor Program, it seems that launch may be imminent.
“My LinkedIn connections grow by the minute,” Ramirez said. “Every day I’m getting connections who are recruiters or managers who just want to talk with me. And I’m just a guy who just graduated. When your mentor is someone like Mrs. Vargas, it’s just easy to connect with those people.”
Vargas, a staff quality engineer at the San Diego biotech company Illumina, describes their pairing like this: “I guess it was just the perfect match.”
The Aztec Mentor Program (AMP), a partnership between SDSU Career Services and Alumni Engagement, made the Ramirez-Vargas connection possible. The program connects eligible juniors, seniors and graduate students in all majors to professional mentors. In the five years since its launch, the program has fostered more than 5,000 mentor-mentee pairings.
“The Aztec Mentor Program allows students to build social capital with SDSU alumni and other professionals,” said James Tarbox, executive director for career development and services in SDSU Career Services. “This gives our students a competitive advantage where they are able to begin forming a professional community as a student. Our mentors often provide SDSU students the ability to think about who they are, who they want to become as professionals, what resources are available and how to present themselves effectively.”
An inspiring mentor
A San Jose State University alumna, Vargas was drawn to participate in AMP because of her positive experience as an SDSU parent; her daughter Christine Vargas is currently a sophomore.
“I’ve always wanted to give back by mentoring students and helping them bridge the gap into a professional career,” Vargas said. “My experience with San Diego State has been nothing but pleasant since the beginning, and it made me decide that this was the perfect place to give my time.”
Vargas’ philanthropic ambitions are rooted in her own story of perseverance. She left her native Nicaragua at age 11 when her parents, fearing their country’s communist regime, sent her to live with her grandmother in Mesa, Ariz. After being held back in math classes because of the language barrier, Vargas persisted; she mastered English and rode her bike five miles in the sweltering Arizona heat to attend summer school so she could get caught up in math and pursue engineering in college.
Today, Vargas is responsible for problem-solving, analyzing and addressing quality-assurance issues on the consumables reagents production floor of a company with 5,500 employees. Recently, she was elected chair-elect of the San Diego chapter of the American Society for Quality.
“I see Edgar with that same passion, same attitude and same hunger for success that I had when I graduated from college, and that I continue to have,” Vargas said. “The mentor-mentee relationship has been very easy from that perspective.”
An immediate connection
Like Vargas, Ramirez has overcome his share of obstacles. Growing up in a low-income community in Chula Vista, he was drawn to biology and the sciences thanks to a childhood obsession with Spiderman, but he said he always lacked role models in the sciences to harness his interest.
Suffering through depression and other personal issues early on at SDSU, Ramirez saw his GPA dip to 1.39 during his sophomore year. But his ambition, and desire to make a difference through a newfound interest in prosthetics and medical devices, helped him pull through. His classroom performance improved and he raised his GPA to a healthy 3.15. But as graduation approached, he knew he needed more than grades to get a foot in the door professionally.
“I needed to build my professional resume,” Ramirez said. “I had the academics but not the applications.”
That’s when Theresa Garcia, assistant dean of engineering for student affairs, connected Ramirez to SDSU Career Services, which matched Ramirez with Vargas for an AMP mentorship.
“I immediately connected with him,” Vargas said. “He’s had a rough personal life at times, but he never gave up. That I share with him, because my path wasn’t easy, either.
Vargas has given Ramirez advice on how to present himself, whether that means not being afraid to speak up during meetings or choosing the best possible photo for his LinkedIn profile. She also brought him onto the Illumina campus to meet managers and has invited him to attend ASQ events to network.
“Mrs. Vargas has helped me with setting a professional persona,” Ramirez said. “She has given me a focus and helped put my name in the professional world.”
And even though Ramirez is no longer technically an AMP mentee after graduation, the teaching relationship has endured.
“I told him that even though we’re no longer technically mentor and mentee through the program, I’ll still mentor him,” Vargas said. “I’ll help him find his first engineering job and continue to provide professional guidance.”
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