From Poverty to Professional Success, Engineering Grad Shares Story

Luis Hall-Valdez is graduating spring of 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a minor in marketing. He has competed and won student competitions, which helped him land a coveted internship at Texas Instruments. And, between his coursework and internship, Luis served as a peer advisor, helping students navigate the tricky waters of college life.

Luis Valdez

On the surface, Luis’ achievements seem to come easy, but his journey to walking the stage at UT Dallas’ Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science graduation ceremony has been full of false-starts, obstacles and sacrifice.

In high school, life for Luis was a constant state of change as he moved from city to city, state to state. He attended seven different schools in total.

“I come from a very poor background,” Luis said. “I used to wear the same thing to school every day. My refrigerator was an ice chest and my house was a little beat up trailer.”

With the chance to work full-time, Luis dropped out of high school his senior year. He took physically demanding jobs in construction and at an oil refinery. Luis recalls how he almost passed out while hammering on a roof.

“I wasn’t as hands-on as my coworkers, and it was pretty noticeable. Construction workers are tough – very tough,” Luis said.

He might have continued down that path, testing the limits of his body in the Texas heat, if his co-workers hadn’t convinced him to give school another try.

“At the refinery, there was one older man, Pablo, who never had the opportunity to attend school like I did. He encouraged me on a daily basis to return before it was too late,” Luis said.

Luis took the advice of his older coworkers and earned his diploma.

Like all high school graduates, Luis was faced with the choice of what came next. For him, it would be a short stint in the military. Although he was medically discharged from boot camp, the structure and intensity was something Luis found he could put to use. Within months, he started a military-inspired fitness organization. His small business would quickly expand and grab the attention of many. News reports called his company the “hottest fitness program in Southeast Texas.”

“I found myself on TV weekly, flying to different places to meet people, partnering with big name gyms,” Luis said.

The success of the fitness program, however, came at the sacrifice of a college education. Luis had enrolled at Lamar University, whose campus is near Houston, with the intent of studying engineering.

“The success of my fitness program consumed me in a way where my grades were suffering and I was no longer focused on my education. I decided to take digital media courses instead of engineering to market my new business,” Luis added.

It wasn’t a degree in engineering, but Luis finished at Lamar with a bachelor’s in general studies, and he could have been content with his accomplishments: he had finished high school, started a successful company and earned a college degree.

But, Luis wanted more. He closed his business and went back to Lamar to study engineering.

“It was really difficult for me to walk away from a fruitful venture. After watching others achieve their transformational goals – goals that changed their life for the better – I made a sacrifice to achieve my own personal goals,” Luis said.

Luis’ return to engineering landed him an internship in the oil and gas industry. He was, once again, working at an oil refinery – albeit in a different capacity this time around – but he wasn’t completely satisfied. He wanted to explore opportunities in the tech industry, so he took a drive to Dallas.

Luis drove directly to the Texas Instruments (TI) headquarters. There, he asked the security guard if he could talk to someone about working for the global company. The security guard didn’t grant him entry, but Luis learned about UT Dallas and the internship opportunities afforded to students in the Jonsson School.

Luis decided to transfer to UT Dallas immediately and left the comforts of his home to pursue his goal of working at TI. He discovered this goal would be the most challenging yet.

“Studying engineering at UT Dallas has been the hardest thing I have ever done. I spent many nights curled up in the fetal position because I had homework due that morning and was stuck on the first problem,” Luis said. “But, you stay up all night because you want to improve. You want to win.”

Fortunately, Luis found the IEEE tutoring center IEEE UTD, the student branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which offers mentorship and guidance from fellow undergraduates and doctoral students. The volunteer tutors helped Luis understand difficult concepts and turned his sleepless nights into moments of clarity.

“Keith Hernandez, a doctoral student and one of the founders of the IEEE tutoring center, helped immensely. All he wanted was for me to succeed,” Luis added.

While mastering his engineering coursework, Luis wanted to take on more. He decided to minor in marketing in the Naveen Jindal School of Management.

“In my minor, I learned about the formal process to selling. With the help of professors, mentors, seminar presenters and many talented students, I discovered the beauty of the process and how to use it while remaining true to the values that are important to me,” Luis said.

Luis quickly mastered his sales skills and won UT Dallas’ Pro Sales Challenge, a student competition. He also competed in the Rookie Preview competition and placed 12th.

With his combination of engineering expertise and sales abilities, Luis had discovered his calling.

“After these sales competitions, I discovered the career field of ‘sales engineering,’ which entails travel, networking, presentations, nurturing client relationships, and so much more that excites me,” Luis added. “In this field, I’m able to combine years of entertaining and motivating people with the understanding of complex products. The sales program helped me put it all together into a process that works. It all started to make sense.”

As for Luis’ goal of working at Texas Instruments, he achieved that, too. The internship offer came while he was studying for finals in the library. He accepted the position of product marketing engineer and shouted aloud after he hung up the phone.

“My time at TI was spent with a child-like fascination. I loved it. From co-producing marketing material, researching market trends and understanding product success to leveraging that success and working directly with companies to find the best solutions, work was fun,” Luis said.

Looking back over his long journey to graduation, Luis credits many for his success, particularly his foster father, W.C. Hall, who took Luis in after high school.

“My foster dad encouraged me to go after what I really wanted in life and made it financially possible to do so,” Luis added. “He has been my biggest champion, and even wrote to donors to help me secure scholarships.”

In recognition of the great opportunity and care his foster father provided, Luis has made Hall his last name.

Luis hopes that as he walks the stage this weekend, his story will encourage and inspire others.

“Anything is possible if you embrace the opportunities and the struggles that come with pursuing what you truly desire in life,” Luis said. “I owe a lot of credit to this university, too. UT Dallas has really changed my life.”

After graduation, Luis will be working at IBM as a Technical Sales Engineer.