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Detour on path to higher ed didn't deter engineering grad

May 05, 2011

Since coming to Arizona State University, engineering student Aaron Peshlakai has more than made up for a slow start to his college education.

The Navajo Nation member – born and raised in Ganado, Ariz. – at first attended a small Colorado college but remained unfocused about his goals after two years there.

He left school, went to work in various jobs, got married and went on a two-year church mission to Chile.

When he decided to resume his higher education four years later, Peshlakai got connected to the Motivated Engineering Transfer Students (METS) program at ASU, earning a scholarship from the program to continue his schooling.

The investment in Peshlakai has paid off, says METS Center director Anita Grierson.

“I was impressed with Aaron when I first met him, and I’ve become more impressed since then,” Grierson says. “He’s done far more than get good grades.”

This spring Peshlakai will become the first in his large family to earn a bachelor’s degree, graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering – and finishing with an impressive 3.8 grade point average.

He’ll go on to graduate school and get on track for earning a master’s degree in the next year and a half.

Already, however, he has gained considerable experience beyond the classroom.

While attending school and starting a family over the past few years, Peshlakai has worked part-time for the U.S. National Park Service, assisting one of the Park Service’s chief engineers with facilities management projects for a region encompassing more than 90 parks in the Southwest.

In addition, he has had a role in establishing programs to conserve energy and water resources in parks operations.

He helped implement a summer student internship program that aided the Park Service in starting an environmental sustainability effort for parklands. He then helped recruit and train several fellow ASU students to fill some of the internship positions.

Peshlakai has also gained experience as a budding entrepreneur and educator.

He and a small group of fellow students are working to turn their senior-year engineering design project into a fledgling business.

The team’s prototype and business plan for developing and marketing a compact solar thermal power generator earned funding as one of the winners of ASU’s annual Innovation Challenge student competition.

The team members have formed a company and are working to improve their prototype technology, seek a patent and find more startup funding. The team is also working on a device to power a mobile medical clinic that another ASU student entrepreneur team is planning to provide to disadvantaged communities in Africa.

Peshlakai now helps mentor other students who transfer to the university through the METS program. He has also participated in the Next Generation of Innovators Speakers Series, telling middle school students about society’s need for technological innovation and career opportunities in engineering.

“His great achievement is developing the skills to succeed at a high level after returning to college,” Grierson says. 
“Now Aaron is telling his story to young students and he is motivating them. I find him truly inspiring.”