Chet Pena graduated from Texas ECE in Spring 2023 focusing on Computer Architecture and Embedded Systems. Originally from Danbury, Connecticut, Chet attended high school in Cedar Park, TX. Chet serves as a TA for 3 different courses: ECE 306, ECE 460N, and ECE 319K. He was also a member of the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi (TBP) and Eta Kappa Nu (HKN), the electrical and computer engineering honor society. We sat down with Chet to learn more about the student experience in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.
What are you doing now?
I'm an embedded systems engineer at a small semiconductor company.
How did you end up at UT? What path led you here?
Connecticut isn't very big, so it doesn't have a lot of choices for public universities. While the private schools in the Northeast are incredibly strong (Ivy Leagues and such), they are very very expensive. My parents were still paying back my dad's exorbitant student debt, so they knew well how much of a burden a huge amount of student loan debt could be and didn't want me and my siblings to have to go through the same thing. So, when my dad lost his job when I was in middle school, my parents saw it as an opportunity to move to a state with more public school options so that my siblings and I could minimize our debt burden. Then, when I was in high school and trying to pick universities to apply to, I was determined to stick to public universities because I didn't want my parent's intentions to go to waste, so my top schools of choice for engineering were really going to be either UT or A&M.
Ultimately, my main draw to UT over other public Texas universities was that it has both a strong music program and a strong engineering program. I still wanted to play music while I was studying engineering (though I wasn't originally intending to double major -- that just ended up happening!). While A&M is also well known for its top-tier engineering department, if I still wanted to do music at A&M, my only choice would be the Corps of Cadets, which I wasn't very interested in. I also liked how close UT was to my parents in Cedar Park. The last reason was really just a series of coincidences: UT had the earliest application deadline, so it was the first application I completed. I was auto-admitted based on my high school class rank, so even though I wouldn't know if I got into my major of choice until four months later, I accepted admission to UT without applying anywhere else since no other public university had both music and engineering anyway. And actually, I didn't get my major of choice initially, but I did get into the engineering department. This turned out to be incredibly lucky since it's so much harder switching into engineering compared to switching between engineering majors and I had no real backup plan if I didn't get into engineering at UT.
What got you interested in electrical and computer engineering?
Two main reasons: a dislike of chemistry classes and a deep interest in the glitches of early Pokemon games.
As I alluded to earlier, I didn't start in electrical and computer engineering. In fact, I didn't even consider it when I was applying since I'd had poor experiences in both physics II (electricity and magnetism) and computer programming in high school. So, my first choice was mechanical engineering, my second choice was environmental engineering, and I was ultimately admitted into architectural engineering. I already knew going into it that I didn't want to do architectural engineering, so I aimed to switch into mechanical after my first semester through internal transfer and was successful. However, after two semesters in mechanical engineering, I realized it really wasn't for me. Additionally, I just didn't want to take any more chemistry classes. Don't get me wrong, I like chemistry, but I didn't like chemistry class because there was just too much memorization. However, I still really wanted to stay in an engineering major if I could because I didn't want to squander my strong math skills. Between not liking mechanical engineering and not wanting to do anything that required a lot of chemistry, my final option if I wanted to stay in engineering was electrical and computer engineering.
At this point, since I was a sophomore, I had already taken physics II in college and understood it much better than in high school, so I was more willing to consider electrical and computer engineering. The final push was that the computer architecture and embedded systems tech core seemed... familiar. You see, throughout grade school, I was very interested in the mechanics of early Pokemon game glitches (yes this is very specific!), which often involved learning about how what I hoped was the computer architecture of the games that led to most of the glitches -- of course, I couldn't know for certain if it really was computer architecture until I actually switched majors. But, I knew that if I was right, then I'd probably like electrical and computer engineering; if I was wrong, I risked switching from a major I was good at but didn't like into a major I was bad at and didn't like. Even still, I applied for and was accepted for internal transfer a second time. Ultimately, I took the leap of faith and accepted the major change. So, it's a darn good thing I turned out to be right about computer architecture!
Who has been a major influence on your life?
Obviously both of my parents have been a major influence in my life. They've always been supportive of my academic journey since day one. I would also say that Dr. Valvano has probably been a major influence in my life given how many times I was either in his class or one of his TAs. Not to mention that I'm actually doing embedded systems in my job now!
If you could provide one positive memory of your time at UT so far that stands out, what would that be?
When I was struggling to decide whether I would be better off in ECE versus ME, one of the things I was considering was that I wouldn't be able to be in an ensemble if I switched because every wind ensemble conflicted with ECE 302 and/or ECE 306. I not only wanted to be in an ensemble, but I felt like I would be disappointing my peers if I dropped after having already been assigned a part in the band. At the end of the second class day that semester, which was the last possible day you were allowed to accept the major change that had already been offered to you, I just so happened to run into Dr. Scott Hanna, the director of the band I was in, on my way to the music building for something unrelated. I told him my predicament and how I felt bad leaving the ensemble behind. He told me that I should do what's best for myself, and he knew he would see me in an ensemble again anyway, essentially giving me his blessing. This was the last nudge I needed to accept the switch, so later that same day, I marched up to engineering student services and switched majors. Now, this was right before the COVID-19 pandemic started and Dr. Hanna ended up retiring before we were allowed to participate in ensembles again (ensembles were cancelled for a few semesters because of health concerns), so I didn't actually see him in ensemble again, but what he said to me was still really important for me to ultimately switch into and fall in love with ECE.
You double majored in ECE with a second major in Music Performance. Tell me about that.
I'll be honest -- I know I had a reason for double majoring, but I can't actually remember why anymore! By the time I started to consider if it was worth it, I was already mostly done. Like with ECE, I fell into music performance more because of a series of coincidences than anything and just decided to stick it out. I like playing the trumpet and felt that the vast majority of the required classes for performance majors (eg. music theory, music history, music literature, etc.) were interesting classes that I would have liked to take as electives anyway. There were also times that having those writing-based courses were a good balance for the engineering technical courses, helping with burnout (or at least delaying it!) even if I was in more total class hours than my other engineering peers.
How are engineering and music similar, and how are they different?
Honestly, they're not really similar at all, but a lot of engineers seem to have a propensity for music too. Some argue that both fields are math-based and that's why engineers are good at music, but I feel like music is more abstract and not actually very "mathy" at all, especially something primarily artistic like performance. I think I just happen to be okay at both, probably because of some obscure neurological reason. I wouldn't even say I'm "great" at music either. Rather, I consider myself a good enough trumpet player and a halfway decent writer, the latter of which is really important for a music degree since a lot of the classes are very writing-heavy compared to any engineering classes. I also just liked the classes in both ECE and music, which made me more motivated to do well even if it wasn't something I was "naturally" good at.