Houston mayor honors Rice engineering student Tony Castilleja

Volunteer makes his mark
Houston mayor honors Rice engineering student Tony Castilleja

Rice News staff

When Rice senior Tony Castilleja looks at the young faces in the classrooms of Houston’s urban schools, he sees himself.

Castilleja has dedicated countless hours to helping high school students understand and meet the expectations of their future colleges, because not too long ago he was sitting where they are.

As a result of his civic engagements, he is one of 12 people who will be honored at Houston Mayor Bill White’s Volunteer Houston Awards dinner May 14 at the Hilton Americas-Houston.

”To be able to connect with them and see a part of me in them, when I was at that level, and at the same time have them see themselves in me — that’s very gratifying,” Castilleja said.

The Hanszen College resident will graduate next month having made quite a mark during his undergraduate years. As president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at Rice, he was instrumental in organizing the Hispanic Engineering National Achievement Awards Conference, which returned to Houston last October after an absence of many years and drew engineers from all over the nation. Its success was important in showing the world how well Houston had weathered Hurricane Ike mere weeks before.

But Castilleja is probably most proud of DREAM, short for “Designing with Rice Engineers — for Achievement through Mentorship.” He founded the program two years ago along with senior bioengineering student Daniela Rimer and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Assistant Professor Brent Houchens. Since then Castilleja has spent an enormous amount of time talking to students, collectively to introduce the program and individually as a mentor.

DREAM began by teaming Rice undergraduates with students at Austin High School on Houston’s east side to prepare them for college studies in science, math and engineering. This year, the program extended its reach to Chavez High School and KIPP Academy in Houston and now serves about 120 high schoolers.

DREAM’s roots are in two earlier programs — the Rice-Austin High School-College Expo (RACE for An Engineering Career) and GEAR UP day — that bring high schoolers to Rice for a day of experiencing campus life.

”I’ve really striven to give back to the community,” said Castilleja, a native of Baytown, who hopes to begin working toward a master’s in engineering at Rice in the fall. ”The society of Hispanic Professional Engineers gave me the opportunity to promote education, college and engineering to a lot of students in our community.”

“Tony’s been an incredible help to me as well as an excellent engineering student,” said David Medina, Rice’s director of Multicultural Community Relations for Public Affairs. “I’ve often turned to him for help with the university’s outreach efforts, and as busy as he’s been, he’s never turned me down.”

Castilleja’s side job as part of Boeing’s Space Shuttle Integrated Propulsion Group has helped him get students’ attention as well. Having started as an intern, he graduated to part-time employment with the group and will work full time there this summer.

”I attribute the ability to connect with kids to my job, which is to launch space shuttles. When I tell them I get to be in Mission Control, right there with the other engineers watching the data streams — that captures their imaginations.”

He hopes his experience demonstrates what Rice has to offer. ”I can never speak enough of the opportunity that Rice gave me,” Castilleja said. ”Every experience I’ve had has been attributable to somebody who gave me an opportunity.”


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.