Student Spotlight: Dustin Mendoza, 'Mr. UAA'

by Jamie Gonzales  |   

I Am UAA - Dustin Mendoza

I AM UAA: Dustin Mendoza

Double Major: Electrical Engineering, Computer Systems Engineering Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska Fun Fact: Holds the 2013 Mr. UAA title

The room was so quiet you could hear the gears in Dustin Mendoza's brain turning, or maybe it was the click of the Rubik's Cube he was manipulating. One final twist and...solved! The crowd erupted in cheers. A champion among Seawolf men, Dustin was crowned the 2013 Mr. UAA by Sigma Sigma Sigma in their lighthearted annual competition that also includes a formalwear Q&A and a swimwear element.

Dustin laughs as he recounts the story of his win against his competitors in their scuba gear and dry suits (legitimate swimwear, obviously).

"It was a lot of fun. I went into it thinking I'm not really going to try and be the Mr. part," he says, flexing his biceps. "I'm just going to be my crazy, Dustin self."

On the entrance form, the tri-Sigmas asked each contestant, "How would your friends describe you?" So, Dustin actually asked his friends. They said things like crazy, energetic, ecstatic and then they kind of threw up their hands and said, "It's just Dustin!" Spot on, he thought.

"Although I'm the nerdiest, geekiest guy in the world­-I play Dungeon's and Dragons, I mean, what the heck-but I also go rock climbing and do so many things that are across the spectrum, you can't really define me as just a geek or a nerd," he says with a smile and a shrug.

Mastering robots

For the last six years, Dustin has been immersed in robotics competitions. First as a competitor and now as both a mentor for middle and high school teams and captain of UAA's robotics team.

He loves his role as mentor so much that this year, in spite of his busy schedule as a double major in both electrical and computer systems engineering, he's taken five teams under his wing. You read that right: five.

Last year, he was recognized as mentor of the year in the state of Alaska for robotics.

So, how did he get so involved with robotics?

"Like all great stories, this one starts with a girl," he says. He was just about to lose interest in science club at school as a young teenager when the club's faculty advisor asked who wanted to form a robotics team. One guy's hand went up, then the cute girl's hand went up.

"Oh my god, I had a crush on her for a while and I thought, this is my chance to talk with her!" Dustin says, so he raised his hand. "As the year went on I was like, 'I kind of like you' and she said, 'I know, I don't like you back.'"

With a little perspective in the following weeks, he realized that while he may have joined the team for a girl, he had actually fallen in love with robotics. Not a bad plot twist.

As a freshman at East High School, Dustin and his teammates became state champions and earned a trip to the world championships.

The only downside to that, he says, was setting the bar sky high so early in his high school career.

Choosing UAA

Dustin's philosophy on school and engineering career prospects is simple: pack your schedule with things you love to do and try to get your foot in the door.

UAA was a practical choice for him that allowed him to stay close to his family, keep out-of-pocket costs to a minimum and remain plugged in with all the community networks he's built over the years as a lifelong Alaskan.

Dustin's parents are first generation Americans from the Philippines and he's been surrounded by family support since he was young. Sometimes too much family support, he admits.

"At one point we had my mom, two brothers, me, my grandma and my grandpa all living in one house. It was pretty fun," he says. "Now it's me, my brother, his wife, three kids and my mom and my dad."

Bringing home new friends or a girlfriend can mean lengthy introductions.

Dustin is technically a junior this year based on credit hours, though it will probably take him another couple years to complete all the courses for his demanding double major.

Right now he's enjoying the ride. Even his 8 a.m. class, Statics and Dynamics.

"It's great because I can write out the way a physical structure moves," he says. "Mechanical structures in robotics, their motion is defined by things rotating and things translating and moving around. I actually know the math behind that. It's so cool to figure that out."

The power of community groups

Beyond school and robotics competitions, Dustin was also an avid participant in the inaugural Anchorage Hackathon where programmers challenged themselves to come up with practical apps and web tools for the community.

Dustin and his group worked together to make an application that could assist in search and rescue operations, which often rely on mustering family and friends around physical maps to divide the search territory. Their app would allow a searcher to log in on their smartphone where they could access a Google map of the search grid and it would then track and log their movements. By sharing that data in real time among other searchers and their smartphones, everyone knows which zones have been traversed and which to target.

"We got so much done in so little time that we now spend three or four hours a week working on it," he says.

Anchorage Makerspace is another one of Dustin's passions.

"It's for people who want to create things," he says. Group members are currently working toward securing a physical location for their brainchild and they already have some start-up funding in hand.

"You'll have a paid membership and be able to use 3-D printers and laser cutters, all these tools that are available for people with money, but at a monthly membership fee that's cheaper than a gym membership. For all the nerds and geeks out there, this is their haven."

Avid gamers and inventors, Dustin and his friends are excited to have another venue to work on game design, both for board games and video games.

Mr. Mentor

The kids Dustin mentors tease him about being an overgrown kid, but he admits he hopes he'll always be a kid at heart and be measured not necessarily by his achievements, but by the lives he touches.

He loves that he gets to goof off with his mentees, and his uniquely Dustin-style methods seems to have a lasting impact on them.

"The funny thing is these kids learn so many things," he says. "They learn the physics behind why you have a drive train, why you have certain wheels in certain configurations and how chains work and how gears work and simple mechanisms."

After just a month of fundamentals, he says, they're adept at putting it all together to creatively solve problems.

Seeing that is what makes it easy for him to devote so much of his free time to mentoring, even forgoing an 18th birthday party with his friends so he could get in one last coaching session with a nervous team the day before a competition. They rewarded him with a handmade birthday card.

It was, he says, the perfect present he didn't even know he wanted.

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