Inspiring grads: Finding determination to overcome academic struggles

Daniel Gray

Daniel Gray (Photo: Fan Wang)

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Daniel Gray refused to let a difficult first semester at UIC defer his dream of graduating from college.

He faced a tough calculus course — one that his high school math coursework did not prepare him well for — and financial stress.

But it was his tenacity that got him through the challenges and to his December graduation — with a job at Boeing waiting for him in Seattle starting in January.

“There are a lot of other people who are naturally smarter, but it doesn’t just take smarts — it takes determination and a lot of hunger to make it through,” said Gray, a senior in mechanical engineering. “I just run my head into the wall, and eventually, I break through. You just have to keep going.”

He faced financial challenges during his first semester and could not find a steady job, so he took on odd jobs walking dogs and baby-sitting to earn some extra money while tackling his challenging coursework.

“It was a new adjustment to learn material that’s complicated and intricate and take an exam in the time given. I just wasn’t prepared at all,” he said.

“I told myself that I didn’t want to give up or be defeated by a class. Overcoming that challenge was satisfying.”

He found help for his academic struggles through the UIC Minority Engineering Recruitment and Retention Program. His academics improved through regular tutoring there.

“I found my home base on campus there,” he said.

All of his time spent at the program offices didn’t go unnoticed — in fact, program leaders offered him a job, which helped him overcome his financial stress.

“I can’t be grateful enough for that program,” he said.

Gray found other opportunities through his involvement with the National Society of Black Engineers. Through networking and job fairs at the society’s conferences, Gray was hired for internships at Toyota and Ford.

Those internships aligned with his passion for cars — an interest that led him to his mechanical engineering major.

“I’ve always had a strong interest and curiosity with cars, and that started with playing Hot Wheels and Legos with my little brother,” he said. “It’s been a strong interest of mine for as long as I can remember.”

At Toyota, he was part of a product development team that designed a method to measure shell bodies between spraying processes. The internship was helpful, he said, but he found a better fit at Ford, where he created an apparatus that measured wheel travel relative to the vehicle’s body, among other projects.

“I took what I learned at Toyota and I became a lot hungrier for work, so I would be a lot more direct asking for help or more projects,” he said. “It was an amazing experience. I learned a lot about myself and helped broaden my horizon about what I want to do.”

He connected with his future employer, Boeing, through the National Society of Black Engineers, too. Starting in January, he will be a structural design engineer, working on the wing team for the company’s latest commercial airplane.

“The fact that I’ll be working for a company like Boeing and moving across the country really is still such a shock — I’m excited and nervous. So many feelings,” he said.

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