Eagle Helped Support Extended Family While Earning Degree, Working Full-Time

Ryan Diaz, who now works at NASA Johnson Space Center, stands in front of the shuttle transport plane mockup at Space Center Houston.
Ryan Diaz, who now works at NASA Johnson Space Center, stands in front of the shuttle transport plane mockup at Space Center Houston. (Photo: Ryan Diaz)

Ryan Diaz didn’t set out to attend his father’s alma mater, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, nor to work in the same facility and even on the same project as his father at the NASA Johnson Space Center. He also hadn’t set out to help support his family financially or to live in a two-bedroom apartment with his mother, younger brother and grandparents while earning his college degree. Yet, because of a combination of tragedy, loyalty and a commitment to hard work, Diaz, now a communications systems engineer working for a sub-contractor to NASA, has experienced all of this and more.

Diaz was awarded a full-ride scholarship to attend the Virginia Military Institute when he was a senior in high school, but the scholarship was revoked because of a previous injury — he had broken his back in middle school. Although he had had a full recovery from the injury, he was deemed ineligible for the scholarship so, instead, went to community college in the Houston area where his family lived.

“It turned out to be a good thing,” Diaz said in a recent interview, explaining that his father had fallen ill with kidney disease and required dialysis three times a week. With his mother working, Diaz attended classes, and he and his older brother traded off taking their father to his appointments. On weekends, Diaz also worked for a mobile veterinary vaccination clinic.

Ryan Diaz, who now works at NASA Johnson Space Center, stands in front of the shuttle transport plane mockup at Space Center Houston.
Diaz poses with his whole immediate family, two childhood friends, and aunt and uncle at his associate's degree graduation. (Photo: Ryan Diaz)

After earning his associate’s degree at community college, Diaz enrolled at Embry-Riddle. He rented an apartment in Port Orange and got a part-time job at another mobile veterinary clinic.

Tragically, during his first semester, his father died. One week later, his cousin, who had been taking care his grandparents, was killed in a car crash.

The only way to take care of his family was for his mother, younger brother and grandparents to come live with him in his two-bedroom apartment.

“That was interesting,” Diaz said understatedly.

His grandparents had medical problems — his grandmother ultimately required open-heart surgery — and even with his mother working full-time in an office, the family’s expenses surpassed their resources. Diaz started working full-time at the veterinary clinic while carrying a full load of classes.

“I was the only guy on campus walking around in scrubs,” he said.

Meanwhile, his younger brother attended Atlantic High School and took advantage of a partnership program that allowed him to do flight training ground school through Embry-Riddle.

“That was kind of cool,” Diaz said.

Moving Forward

Diaz had started in Electrical Engineering with an Avionics focus at Embry-Riddle. When he took Dr. Eduardo Rojas’ electric and magnetic field class, however, his focus intensified.

“Dr. Rojas is an awesome professor, and by senior year, most of my classes were with him,” Diaz said.

That year, after taking an experimental class with Rojas focused on space antenna design, Diaz said he was well-prepared to respond to a job opening at NASA Johnson Space Center. The job entailed radio frequency analysis for space antennas, and Diaz said he had just the right background.

“That experimental course Dr. Rojas offered was the actual basis of what we work on every day in my current job,” said Diaz, who graduated from Embry-Riddle in 2020.

Rojas said Diaz’s performance in school stood out, despite his many responsibilities.

“One remarkable aspect of Ryan's story is his outstanding academic performance and enthusiastic character while balancing schoolwork, a job and supporting his family,” Rojas said. “Ryan not only presented himself as an energetic and happy student, but he often engaged in interesting conversations during the class meetings. Predictably, his academic performance was among the top of his class.”

As it turns out, at NASA Diaz is working on communication tracking for the International Space Station, the Lunar Gateway for the Artemis Mission and the Orion Capsule. His father, Saul Diaz, who earned his master’s degree from Embry-Riddle in 2008, had worked in the same facility, also on the Orion Capsule.

“It’s a really great connection,” said Diaz. “I get to see what my dad had done over the years.”

Diaz’s younger brother, Alexander “Christian” Diaz, will start classes at Embry-Riddle either this spring or next fall. “We’re seeing how everything works out with the financials,” Diaz said.

Although Christian is planning on majoring in Mechanical Engineering rather than Electrical Engineering, his older brother would love for him to experience Rojas’ Wireless Devices and Electromagnetics (WiDE) Laboratory.

“Dr. Rojas and I have been scheming to get him into the WiDE lab,” Diaz said.

Posted In: Engineering