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One Voice

Engineering My Life

Before she was a professor of practice, Shayla Rivera '83 was an aerospace engineer at NASA. In addition to teaching, she is also a motivational speaker and stand-up comedian. 

In the crazy way that unassuming things will change your life, a story about fleas changed mine. Around 1991, I heard a talk by the late Zig Ziglar, a motivational speaker, who told an eye-opening anecdote: To train a flea, he said, you put it in a jar with a lid. The first day, the flea will jump and hit the lid over and over. The next day, it won’t jump as much; and by the third day, it has learned to jump only as high as it needs to jump to avoid hitting the lid. At that point, the flea is conditioned to believe the height of the jar is as high as it can jump, and when you take the lid off, the flea will never jump higher than the jar again.

Ziglar said to the audience, “You are just like this flea. Each of us carries around the jars of our own limiting beliefs, and once you are aware of how you limit yourself, you can jump out and change your life.”

It was like—WHOOSH! Mind blown. In that moment, I decided I wouldn’t place limits on my life or my capabilities; and as it turns out, that conscious decision eventually led me to Texas A&M University for the second time in my life.

Funny Rocket Scientist

Let me back up and start at the beginning: I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and despite speaking very little English at the time, I came to Texas A&M in 1979. I studied aerospace engineering because my parents expected it, and they were paying. But I also loved it because I’m a huge science geek!

My first job after graduation was with NASA’s Space Shuttle and Space Station programs, where I helped develop software simulating the critical points of missions, like ascent and entry. I worked with NASA for five years until I found my way into technical sales.

That career path was different because while I still used my engineering degree, I also needed good interpersonal skills. It was also the first time I was exposed to professional development. I attended sales trainings and learned about personality types, interacting with people and managing life. I was in awe. I saw the value of these ideas and decided I wanted to become a trainer.  

I pleaded my way into a corporate training job working and learning from Houston stress management expert Robert Pennington, but it wasn’t until I heard the flea story that I took the risk to pursue motivational speaking myself. I did small gigs at night, and then people began telling me, “You should try comedy!” I was so offended by that (like hey, I’m trying to be enlightening here, what’s wrong with you?), but I heard it enough times to finally try it in 1993, and I’ve been doing stand-up comedy ever since. I tell everyone: “The best way to learn, grow and change—in other words, become enlightened—is to lighten up.”

Texas A&M: Take Two

Eventually, I was invited to speak at Texas A&M, and after one of my motivational talks a few years ago, someone suggested I teach here. I said, “Excuse me? That’s not even possible; I’ve only got a Bachelor of Science!” But it stuck with me, and when College of Engineering Dean Katherine M. Banks asked me to join the university’s engineering program in 2017, I said yes.

Today, I am an engineering professor of practice, which is a perfect fit for me. Professors of practice are industry professionals who have practical experience outside of academia and bring that perspective to students. As our program leader, Col. Mark Johnson ’78, likes to put it, “We have done what you are learning to do.”

I am also the program director for ENGR[x], which I like to call “engineering the engineer.” This initiative is about the development of students’ soft skills, or “power” skills. When students enter industry, they will learn that it’s not about what you know; it’s more about who you are. Can you lead? Are you a good team member? Are you ethical? Compassionate? Can you communicate effectively?

Engineering students participate in a study abroad experience as part of their ENGR[x] requirement.

To help develop these skills, the ENGR[x] requirement gives students their entire undergraduate time to participate in a high-impact experience and then complete a meaningful self-reflection discussing the impact of this experience in their development. Activities include study abroad, internships, co-ops or similar experiences. I have a lot of ideas and plans for ENGR[x] that I’m excited to introduce. But mostly, I’m excited to help students become more well-rounded, confident individuals by the time they enter the job force.

So here I am, full circle at Texas A&M. Thirty-five years ago, I became an aerospace engineer, and I didn’t know that I could be a motivational speaker or a comedian. Three years ago, I didn’t know that being a professor of practice was a possibility. But I do know this: In life, if you take risks, go in the direction you’re drawn to and let yourself be inspired—even by something as bizarre as fleas—opportunities will arise that you cannot see today. And they will take you exactly where you’re supposed to be. Where I am right now, at Texas A&M, is where I’m supposed to be.

To support professors of practice like Shayla, click here. To support the ENGR[x] program, click here. Learn more about both programs by contacting Jay Roberts '05 below.


Jay Roberts '05

Executive Development Officer
Central Development Staff