Celebrating Inclusive Excellence: Ben Ruvalcaba-Alonso's Lifetime of Learning
At the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), you will find people dedicated to expanding their knowledge and solving problems. Research Engineer Benjamin (Ben) Ruvalcaba-Alonso embodies those ideals both in his GTRI role and in his local San Diego, California community.
As a project manager, Ben leads a team of approximately 15 engineers. He understands the abilities and needs of his team, keeping that balanced with each sponsor's expectations and resources. Ben's an active participant in GTRI's employee resource group IDENTIFY@GTRI. Outside of work, he volunteers with the Society of Hispanic professional engineers, Crisis Text Line, and the San Diego County Engineering Council. He will soon be the chair of the Information Security Council.
Even with all these acclaims under his belt, Ben says, "Everything I achieve doesn't matter if I don't make an impact in people's lives."
A Robust Education
Long before Ben began working at GTRI, he was a young boy who loved to tinker. He was born in Mexico and spent his grade school years in Orange County, California. In both of his childhood homes, Ben looked for broken electronics that he could fix. He recalls fiddling around with his family's television and transistor radios in the 1970s, trying to make them perfect.
When it came time to go to college, Ben was ready. His parents had instilled in him a love for learning and created a path for higher education. As a first-generation college student, Ben looked through the menu of degree programs, trying to find something that would match his desire to solve problems. Computer science jumped out at him. Ben graduated with his bachelor’s degree from the Universidad Autónoma de Aguascalientes and began his career in Mexico.
In 1999, Ben moved to the United States and encountered an unexpected challenge. Despite his education, qualifications, and experience, nobody would hire him.
"I found that a lot of corporations were not open to considering my education or my work experience from Mexico," explained Ben.
Even though he had been working on mainframe computers that matched the quality of computers in the United States, people would look at Ben's resume and frown at his experience. His solution: get another degree from an American institution. He pursued and received a master's degree in Information Technology, specializing in project management and leadership from Capella University.
Ben had been met with unfair opposition, but he does not look back at that challenge with bitterness. Instead, he explained that Capella University's curricula matched a professional goal he held, and the additional degree opened new opportunities for him.
This thirst for knowledge is ever-present in Ben's life.
"A lot of my spare time goes into working on my craft, whether it's project management skills, learning new technologies, or just tinkering around with stuff," said Ben.
You can see this mentality displayed when you explore some of Ben's achievements over the years. He holds certifications from the University of California, Irvine; and a project management certification in Six Sigma from Illinois University. Additionally, he's received plenty of industry certifications in cybersecurity, test verification, and quality assurance.
Passion for His Work
About five years ago, Ben decided to move into the cyber field. He pivoted and took a pretty significant pay cut to launch his career in a new direction. After making the shift in his career, Ben began working on a massive project involving multiple organizations – including GTRI.
"I really didn't know anything about GTRI before I took that job in cyber," said Ben. "But through that project, I learned GTRI is a great company, and great people work there."
So, Ben was all in when a recruiter reached out about an opening in GTRI's Cybersecurity, Information Protection, and Hardware Evaluation Research (CIPHER) Laboratory at the San Diego office. Now, he manages a team of approximately 15 engineers, and they are producing platforms for the U.S. Navy.
"The work we do, the challenges we solve, it's all very interesting and very motivating for me," said Ben. "That's why I ended up at GTRI."
While Ben's current role pushes him toward innovation and solving problems in new ways, he is continuously looking for the next challenge. Ben's eyes are set on a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, and he hopes to take some junior engineers under his wing to mentor and grow with them.
Ben explains the dichotomy that comes with a commitment to learning, "The more I learn, the more I realize I don't know because there's so much more to learn. I try to fill as many of the important gaps I have in my knowledge through mentorship and self-study."
Diversity of Ideas
When discussing diversity, Ben explains it is not about adding people to our organization for the sake of numbers. The focus should be on seeking a variety of ideas and experiences. That idea ties into the 2022 Hispanic Heritage Month Observance Theme: "Unidos: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation." The theme emphasizes the importance of ensuring all voices are represented and welcomed to help build stronger communities and a stronger nation.
"Diversity of ideas is going to come from the diversity of backgrounds," said Ben. "If we all live in the same neighborhood and we all have the same experience, our knowledge is limited to that."
Opportunities need to be plentiful and widely shared to bring in people with different perspectives. That is one of the reasons Ben volunteers with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. The organization offers scholarships to underrepresented groups and engages in community outreach. Ben talks to individuals and students about career opportunities within STEM fields; he's gone into high schools to explain the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), how to apply for college, and why it matters.
"Sometimes, you don't realize the impact you can have on somebody's life until you do it, until you volunteer, until you go out there and you start working with people," said Ben.
Ben also serves on the San Diego county engineering council, which helps aggregate professional societies to identify ways they can collaborate. Furthermore, he volunteers at the Crisis Text Line, where he takes people from a hot moment to a cool calm. Ben places enormous importance on mental health. He believes humans are a lot better than we give them credit for sometimes, and the community of people around us is more extensive and kinder than we typically assume. Volunteering allows him to pour into his communities and care for people in multiple aspects of their lives.
Supporting One Another
"There's a lot of preconceived notions of what a Mexican should look like, and I would expect the same to be true for other diverse people," said Ben. "There are some subtle cues that come along with being Hispanic in an industry that is not necessarily full of Hispanics."
Ben explains that alliances are an excellent way for organizations and communities to combat these biases. A network of support is built when coming together with a diverse group who desire to share and learn.
Ben has found one of these alliances at GTRI. IDENTIFY@GTRI is an employee resource group for individuals who identify as minorities or persons of color. Through passionate leaders and active members, IDENTIFY shares educational content and offers community-building events such as a book club or group writing sessions.
"There are a hundred different reasons for being in IDENTIFY, but the sense of community, the support that I receive, and the support that I hope I can spread is really, really huge for me," shared Ben.
The work around diversity extends beyond single heritage months throughout the year. Cultivating a true sense of belonging and inclusion requires work year-round, and people must be committed to learning, growing, and expanding outside their typical network.
"You don't have to be a Latino to help another Latino," said Ben. "Encourage people to apply, encourage them to keep learning, and encourage them to be the best version of themselves."
Writer: Katrina Heitz
Photographs provided by Ben Ruvalcaba-Alonso
Georgia Tech Research Institute
Atlanta, Georgia USA
The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is the nonprofit, applied research division of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). Founded in 1934 as the Engineering Experiment Station, GTRI has grown to more than 2,800 employees, supporting eight laboratories in over 20 locations around the country and performing more than $700 million of problem-solving research annually for government and industry. GTRI's renowned researchers combine science, engineering, economics, policy, and technical expertise to solve complex problems for the U.S. federal government, state, and industry.