Cal Poly electrical engineering student won’t let anything short-circuit his dream

Tribune photo by David Middlecamp

At 32, Robert Peralta will be an older college graduate.

But unlike his younger colleagues he has overcome a lifetime of challenges — expulsion from high school, social distractions in his 20s and initial academic probation at Cal Poly.

The Santa Maria native — whose parents worked long hours in the fields when he was growing up — persevered through them all.

He will receive his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at a 3 p.m. ceremony June 12 at Spanos Stadium.

Peralta finishes college a motivated student who earned a 3.2 grade-point average last quarter, loves his career path and feels prepared to join the work force.

“It took a little while for Robert to get the hang of things, and to recollect what he learned before Cal Poly, but he’s dedicated, hard working, and follows through with his goals,” said friend Oscar Vargas, a Cal Poly master’s degree student in mechanical engineering.

Peralta has completed job interviews with three companies — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. at Diablo Canyon, Southern California Edison in Los Angeles and San Diego Gas & Electric — and is waiting to hear back.

The soon-to-be college graduate said his parents continually encouraged him to pursue an education. Peralta’s father, Cleo Peralta, earned his high school GED diploma after being raised in Texas. Cleo Peralta now works as a school maintenance worker and newspaper delivery man in Santa Maria.

His mother, Abigail Peralta, a homemaker after many years as a farm worker, finished only a second-grade education in Mexico before working as a child to help her family.

“When I was a kid, my parents worked very hard, and we lived on the poor side of town,” Robert Peralta said. “But I remember when I was pretty young, like 11 or 12, my dad bought me a word processor to help me do well in school.”

As a student at Santa Maria High School, Peralta fell in with the wrong crowd who “didn’t applaud success in school.”

He was expelled after being tied to a brawl involving several students, all but two of whom were kicked out, Peralta said.

“After being expelled, I asked my teachers for homework assignments outside of school,” Peralta said. “And the school decided to let me back in.”

Peralta served four years in the U.S. Army from 1996 to 2000 after high school to earn money for college, which included a tour of duty in Kuwait in 1998.

Peralta’s job was to make sure a system that tracked enemy missiles was operating properly.

He still becomes startled, he says, sometimes when he hears sirens similar to those used to warn soldiers of potential air attacks.

When he returned home, Peralta struggled with binge drinking. He knew he had to focus on his studies at Allan Hancock College.

Peralta said he sought advice from people he trusted in his life to get back on track and willed himself to regain concentration on his studies.

He dedicated himself to his studies and was accepted by Cal Poly in 2007.

Still, during his first year at Cal Poly, he was immediately faced with academic probation after failing a statistics class.

“When I first came to Cal Poly, I had a lot of trouble with the pace and feeling adjusted, and by the end of the first year, Cal Poly was basically saying, ‘Why should we keep you here?’ ” Peralta said.

He credits his friends at Cal Poly for encouraging him and helping him through academic challenges. They include engineering students from Santa Maria who met regularly on the third floor of the university’s Kennedy Library.

“We have laughed together, cried together, we’ve pulled our hair out together,” Peralta said. “We ate together and sometimes we stayed up into the early morning studying.”

An accomplishment that helped encourage him was a national design award from the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers last year.

The project was an electric generator designed to produce energy for lunar space missions that he worked on with a team of fellow Cal Poly students. They took first place.

“I have known Robert for almost three years now,” said Taufik, an electrical engineering professor. (He uses only one name.) “He is the kind of student who stays focused and works hard despite the difficult times.”