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Earning My Place

By Viviana Castillo

Viviana Castillo

I moved to Seattle five years ago from eastern Washington. My family migrated from Mexico 22 years ago, fleeing poverty. Once in Washington, my family worked endlessly. I grew up in a single-parent home, raised by my older sister. I was a quiet kid. I read a lot. When I was 11, I told my mom that I was “out of there” right after high school. I decided I would do anything possible to make that happen.

I am the first in my family to attend college. Education was my way out and my way of providing for my family. I, like the many incredibly bright, relentless, inspiring students of color that I have the privilege of calling my classmates and friends at the University of Washington (UW), pushed through the barriers to learn how to navigate a large institution.

The challenge to fit in and feel like I deserved my place in this highly ranked university was nearly impossible to overcome. I didn’t have the support at home that other kids did when it comes to help with homework, applications or advanced classes.

I took charge of my education and enrolled in Running Start my junior year of high school. A counselor dissuaded me, saying classes could be too hard, or I might not have the $5 to drive daily to the community college. It is encounters like this that deter students of color from challenging themselves further. But I stuck it out and graduated with an even better G.P.A. from the community college than my first two years in high school.

I entered the university environment with this drive and work ethic. Undergrad was extremely difficult, from worrying about how I was going to pay for classes to learning how to study and feeling that I deserved to be there. For the first three years of undergrad, I suffered from imposter syndrome; overcommitted, sleeping 3 hr. a night and unable to shake the feeling of not belonging.

I did not get through high school and undergrad at UW on my own. The Advancement via Individual Determination program in high school encouraged me, and the College Assistant Migrant Program my freshman year of college pushed me. It was the small community of people of color at UW that inspired and convinced me that I had indeed earned my seat there and was not alone. It was the many nights at Latinx Student Union meetings where we would discuss our hardships with classes, with our peers and in this country that uplifted me and ultimately brought me to the Applied Physics Laboratory at UW (APL-UW).

I began working at APL-UW in October 2017, two months after finishing my undergraduate degree in oceanography. UW oceanographer Rick Rupan, whom I worked with, suggested I contact Sarah Webster at APL-UW, an independent department at UW that is a Navy-recognized University Affiliated Research Center, one of only five in the U.S. I met with Sarah and Pete Brodsky, autonomous underwater system engineers at APL-UW. They took a chance and offered me a position.

The first three months were grueling because I had little to no experience in the critical technologies of ocean engineering. However, I was able to focus my attention and give it my all. It was thrilling and rewarding.

On my first day at work, Pete, my boss, showed me around. The first thing I noticed was a pair of old, cut-up denim behind wooden fish cutouts labeled “Donald Trump” and “Hillary Clinton.” There were shot glasses around the room. I eventually learned the shot glasses were for epoxying 3D-printed parts, the fish were for a previous project, and the denim was old pants and jackets cut up into rags.

This scene is partly why I was immediately drawn to APL-UW. I felt I could succeed in this light-hearted, flexible, yet rigorous environment. Without the remarkably bright APL-UW employees, I would not have learned as much as I did in such a short period of time.

In less than a year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with more technologies than I thought possible, including the Linux operating system, the Python programming language to write applications and Matlab to analyze data. I have learned communication protocols such as serial, Ethernet and I2C. I’ve developed interfaces to internal sensors and actuators. I’ve learned how to establish a reliable network time protocol and have worked with submersible Iridium-based remote autonomous locating beacons. I have wired and soldered boards for computers and have worked with high-bandwidth data links using fiber-optic cables, connectors and switches.

In August 2018, I went on a research cruise. It was a chance to live with my co-workers in a challenging, exciting, exhausting and richly rewarding environment. There’s nothing like eight days at sea to stress you out and help you get to know your colleagues and yourself better.

I hope to spend even more time at sea. Now, I know I belong and have earned my place, ready to embrace another challenge.


Viviana Castillo received a B.S. in oceanography from the University of Washington. After a study-abroad program at the Queensland University of Technology, she started learning about and working with autonomous systems. She currently holds a position at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at the University of Washington as a research scientist/engineer, working with critical ocean technologies.