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Puerto Rico Wing's 2nd Lt. Gabriel Vazquez is a student pilot and aviation major

Posted on 04/09/2021 at 10:43 AM by Virginia Smith

Portrait of 2nd Lt. Gabriel Vazquez
2nd Lt. Gabriel Vazquez is assistant AEO for the Lt. Col. Elsa M. Soto-Torres Cadet Squadron in Puerto Rico.

April 8, 2021

Meet 2nd Lt. Gabriel Vazquez, assistant Aerospace Education Officer for the Lt. Col. Elsa M. Soto-Torres Cadet Squadron in Puerto Rico Wing. He is a student pilot and in his final year of working toward his bachelor's degree in aviation at Inter-American University of Puerto Rico - Bayamon. As long as he can remember, he has felt a connection to aerospace. He enjoys leading aerospace/STEM lessons in the squadron, and externally, he visits his former grade school at the request of one of his former teachers, to talk to the students about STEM in aeronautics and his experience as a student pilot. "The students in that club absolutely amazed me as they were following along with my presentation, asking questions that I was not expecting of elementary school kids," he recalls. "There was no mistaking it, those students had found their interest. They were drawn to this world of STEM, and that left a lasting impression on me."  Recently, he was selected as one of the NASA Solar System Ambassadors. The program, a public engagement effort to promote the science and excitement of NASA's space exploration missions, gives him more tools to share aerospace/STEM with youth. We asked him some questions about his CAP career and interest in aerospace education. His answers follow.

How did you become involved in Civil Air Patrol?

I had heard of the Civil Air Patrol, but I was never a cadet. When I decided to join, I was finishing my third year of college, junior year, and I noticed the brochures in the student library of the aviation department. The brochures expressed the opportunity to fly for the Civil Air Patrol, and I was immediately interested as I already had my Private Pilot License and was then working on my Instrument Rating. The recruiter who put the fliers in the library turned out to be another student in my department, and that, to me, was a surprise to see someone like me, a college student and around my same age, already a senior member in CAP and already taking the role of recruiting. 2nd Lt. Wilson Rodriguez, CAP (who is also currently a specialist in the Puerto Rico National Guard) and I have become good friends. 

How many years have you been in Civil Air Patrol? Tell us about your career so far.

As of now, I have been in the Civil Air Patrol for a little over a year and a half. It will be two years in late June, and it has been the best decision I have made to this point in my life. At first, I had joined CAP to be a pilot for the organization, but I quickly found out that it has so much more to offer, even to a person over the age of being a cadet. The biggest influence I had in getting where I am today was the then-deputy Commander of SER-PR-094 Cadet Squadron, now the squadron commander of 094, 1st Lt. Rolando Adorno, who I met at Squadron Leadership School course (a professional development training for senior

2nd Lt. Vazquez instructs cadets on the quadcopter
2nd Lt. Vazquez leads cadets in a quadcopter lesson.

members) and he asked me a simple question during a break: “How involved do you want to be in Civil Air Patrol?” I answered, “as much as possible” and after that, he described the high activity at cadet squadrons. He invited me to go to his squadron and then told me about the Aerospace Education mission. SER-PR-094 Squadron has become like an extended family to me. I have always been interested in aviation and space; so I immediately connected with CAP’s mission of Aerospace Education. It has been the best time! It has allowed me to take all those years of aviation and space books, DVDs, seeing planes up close in the observation deck of my airport, and watching rocket launches on TV and now made it more worthwhile than anyone could imagine back then. Now I get to share all that as well as experience new aerospace developments with the next generation of cadets and future aerospace leaders.

I'm still a college student, currently in my final year of my aviation bachelor’s degree. I have my private pilot license with an instrument rating and I’m currently pursuing my commercial pilot license. I will finish my education with all my instructor ratings. In CAP, I have the Yeager award, my Senior Rating in Aerospace Education looking to earn my Master AE Rating. I have not yet been checked out to be a pilot for CAP but am currently working to finish that checkout. In school, I’m a member of the Aeronautical Students Association of Inter-American University of Puerto Rico-Bayamon Campus, Department of Aeronautics.

Tell us about your life and pursuits outside of Civil Air Patrol.

I’m currently in the Officer Candidate program for the United States Marine Corps with the goal of becoming a Marine Officer who hopefully gets to be a Naval Aviator.

Why do you work in the Aerospace Education mission area? Why do you encourage youth in the Aerospace Education area?

I felt a connection to the Aerospace world for as long as I can remember. When I was 3 years old, I started seeing commercial jets fly over my house and seeing them in the observation deck at my local airport, and from there on, I looked for anything related -- DVDs, movies, toys, and it’s been an interest that no matter how much time has passed, that level of interest has never faded. In fact, it has only increased with time. I felt my connection to that world strengthen when I first saw the USAF Thunderbirds perform in 2010 when they came to Ceiba, Puerto Rico, and the following year in 2011. That’s probably the best feeling that you get being involved with Aerospace Education. In a way, it’s like you never really grew up, and you see things with that same interest that a kid would see it. I believe that’s why it's so easy for Aerospace Education Officers (AEOs) and Aerospace Education Members (AEMs) to connect with their cadets and students. In a way we’re still in their shoes, and we see things almost like they do and we see our position as a way to connect the cadets and students with the AE world. It’s especially gratifying when we didn’t have these kinds of opportunities when we were the same age that cadets are now and to see how they react and enjoy the activities -- be it STEM Kits or Orientation Flights, and knowing we had that impact. It’s extremely gratifying. I feel grateful that CAP has shown me a way to make this kind of impact and that it lets me be part of the CAP family and make an impact in someone else’s life.

Aerospace Education needs to be encouraged to youth to nurture the attitude that AE requires. Before students can master the skill, they must have the right attitude -- an attitude where the mind only thinks of what it can do and never about what it can’t do. They see a rocket or an airplane or a robot and think, “I can do that someday.” They’re driven. I may be relatively young, but I’ve seen that with the right attitude, skill can be created where some don’t think that it exists. I’ve also seen that attitude can get lost along the way, and it’s unfortunate to see the interest level drop. Life is hard and there are many reasons as to why the focus can shift, but I believe we continue to show that the door is always open. Even when it may seem that it's closing, it won’t if kids, cadets, college students or even adults don’t let it. That’s why I believe CAP is such a valuable asset to the nation in developing the aerospace leaders of tomorrow, in CAP, teenagers can become cadets and enter an environment where they can get involved and open doors in a world where sometimes it seems like it only wants to close doors. And if those doors did close, programs like Civil Air Patrol are the key to open them. I firmly believe that.  

Tell us about the Civil Air Patrol AE programs you use in your squadron and externally.

In my squadron, the programs we use the most are the STEM Kits and Aerospace Education Excellence (AEX) activities. Flying drones is the favorite STEM kit in my squadron; the cadets are amazed to control it and to see the camera view through the screen of the phone. It allows us to physically show all the uses that drones can have in society. The robotic arm has also shown a high degree of appeal.

I perform the external AE duties of an AEO by assisting one of my former teachers from grade school, Dr. Jacqueline Lopez, Ed.D., who coincidentally became an Aerospace Education Member the same time I entered CAP and became an Aerospace Education Officer, showing her students the world of STEM. She is in charge of the school’s Science Club as well as the curriculum for science classes and is involved in K-12 regarding STEM. I have given presentations as well as use the K-6 Aerospace Connections in Education (ACE) program to engage the students. 

Tell us how you came to be involved with the Solar System Ambassadors program. Do you use this program in your squadron?

I first heard of the Solar System Ambassadors program two years ago when it popped up in a Google search. I did not know that NASA JPL had such a program. I wanted to apply, but I saw that the application period had closed by then. I thought about applying the following year. When it came time that the new SSA could announce themselves, I saw that a member of the California Wing of Civil Air Patrol had gotten into the program, and I thought the Puerto Rico Wing can have one, too. 

The mission of a Solar System Ambassador and the mission of an AEO/AEM in CAP are similar: To provide outreach and awareness of the aerospace world. I try to combine the work as much as I can by presenting material from CAP and material from the SSA program. The more the cadets or students can get out of it, the better the result. The great thing about the SSA program is the training I receive in the seminars helps me learn ideas as to how to present the topics and how to communicate with my audience. That’s a big reason as to why I enjoy so much being in the SSA program and in CAP. Both can go hand-in-hand remarkably, and I think more AEOs and AEMs should take advantage of this opportunity.

Tell us about the Lt. Col. Elsa M. Soto-Torres Cadet Squadron. How does the squadron promote Aerospace Education? What do the cadets gain from their AE work?

Lt. Col. Elsa M. Soto-Torres Cadet Squadron is one of two Civil Air Patrol Squadrons in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, comprised of very motivated cadets with an equally motivated staff of senior members who take being in this squadron quite seriously. It’s not enough to just play, we want to leave a mark, and the cadets share that idea, as well. We meet on Saturdays on a weekly basis.

The squadron promotes AE in the squadron through the use of STEM Kits and activities outside of the squadron such as field trips when there was no pandemic, and it also conducts recruiting sessions by going to schools to give program orientations. In this squadron, the Aerospace Education mission is a big drive. Cadets gain a new perspective, and they see that the world of STEM is within reach of them. Some of the cadets might not get that kind of access within their regular school or they do and come here to receive a new approach to it. Whatever the case is, they can get an early start toward the path they have chosen, or they can discover what it is that they want to do in the future, and this is their first taste. 

What is the best advice you have for a new AE Officer working with cadets?

My best advice for new AEOs is to connect with the cadets and remember that you were once just like them. Remember how you first looked at an airplane when you saw it or how fascinated you were by the world of science and bring that same emotion to your work. The best way to do this role is with passion. Be, as Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s current Chief Scientist, says, “a gravity assist” to someone. Be that person that steered a cadet or student toward a path they want to get to, and you could be that initial step in their journey. If you’re like me, just starting out in life, watch as those cadets or students are a gravity assist for you as well. 

Do you have any suggestions for how to conduct outreach in schools (working with students and recruiting AEMs)?

Show the community what you’re doing. Make a video compilation of cadets and students with STEM Kits or doing ACE/AEX activities. Present photos of cadets in their orientation flights and if possible have cadets present their own experience with the program and not only explain what they have gained from it, but also express how they feel it has been a stepping stone for the next step in their lives. AEMs should also take advantage of the ACE/AEX material and show the school how much it has helped in the classroom. Get other AEMs on board and continue to spread the word about this great resource so that no one misses out. Most importantly, connect with the students. Walk the path with them and they will continue onward. 

Please tell anecdotes of a rewarding experience working with cadets and/or students or teachers:

The first Aerospace Education Class I gave in my squadron was about aeronautical sectional charts, which are the maps pilots use. I was a little nervous because it was my first time being a mentor to a group where I was not a peer but rather an educator. As I gave that first class, however, I surprisingly clicked very well with the cadets. It felt natural. Maybe it was that I knew the material so well, but as I’ve talked about other subjects, the results have been the same. Now, I very much look forward to giving AE classes and activities in my squadron, and the cadets do as well. 

Another memorable moment was when I gave my first external AE talk in CAP. I went back to my former grade school, American Military Academy in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, to talk to the students in the science club about the use of STEM in aeronautics and about my experience as a student pilot. Dr. Lopez had asked me to come to meet with the students. The students in that club absolutely amazed me as they were following along with my presentation, asking questions that I was not expecting grade school kids to make. There was no mistaking it. Those students had found their interest, they were drawn to this world of STEM and that left a lasting impression on me. To see students between the ages of 9 and 11 years old with that drive is something to be impressed with and something to support. That was a clear example of what my former professor was doing now as an AEM, and why AEOs and AEMs need to keep doing what we’re doing and go further. I’ll say it again, the doors are open. The students and cadets want to walk this path, and we can be their guides into this world. We can show them where those first steps can take them. It’s just as big as an opportunity for us as it is for them.

Is there anything else that we didn’t ask that you’d like to add for this story?

If you’re in the same position as me, still in the college phase of your life, don’t think that you’re too young or inexperienced to make an impact. If you want to be involved and make a difference, all you need is commitment and dedication to the program. Of course, many of the people serving in these positions have had a lot of experience in the field or maybe are currently working in the field, and you should see that as a valuable resource to help you. Who knows, maybe you might even find your own door to open and start your own journey or recontinue one that you had put on hold. Just because you didn’t start before or after age 18 doesn’t mean it’s too late. The game is over when you stop playing. Thanks to being an AEO, I didn’t have to wait till I became a Certified Flight Instructor to be a teacher or mentor. I got my first opportunity before that as an Aerospace Education Officer. I hope more of America’s young adults see and learn that in CAP you can develop, and it could have an impact on them as much as they can impact the lives of others. Believe me that there’s a lot to be found here in CAP for people in their 20s. 
 

 

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