Caltech Athletics
Caltech's Teri Juarez

Gary Brown,

Ask Caltech basketball and volleyball student-athlete Teri Juarez how she got from El Paso to Pasadena, and she’ll say it’s because she never felt like she couldn’t accomplish anything she wanted.

That same spirit that drove this Latina math and science whiz to land at one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the country likely will be what brings her home, too.

“Giving back to my community is high on my priority list,” said the determined mechanical engineering major. “Being able to take all these research ideas and the experiences I’ve had out here back to my community would be exciting for me.”

If the effort she has put into her life is any indication, Juarez figures to have a lot to give back. She’s come a long way from the ballet class she hated as a little girl to improving the thermal architecture design to keep the electronics on a Venus lander at a functional temperature for as long as possible.

Say what?

That’s right. Caltech is not your typical college, and Juarez is not your typical college student. “I’ve wanted to work for NASA from the moment I decided to be an engineer,” she said. Having the leading center for robotics so close to the Caltech campus certainly helped. The internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory also involved contributing to “Thermodynamics for Dummies,” which her mentor is authoring.

But to Caltech head women’s basketball coach Sandra Marbut, Juarez’s life reads more like “The Little Engine That Could.” She was excited to have a player with Juarez’s experience, even though the 5-foot-6-inch forward missed her senior year of high school ball because she blew out her knee.

Juarez actually credits that injury for her ending up at Caltech. “Being injured took me away from being so dedicated to my athletics in high school,” she said. “I got a chance to focus on my academic side. My teachers were telling me that I had the potential to go anywhere I wanted.”

That included MIT, which is where Juarez had set her sights. But a summer engineering program at the 900-student campus in the city better known for the Rose Parade changed this Texan’s mind.

Juarez is attending college in part on behalf of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Scholarship, a highly competitive grant that funds schooling based on need for 10 years – enough to carry Juarez through her master’s and doctoral degrees.

With her admission to Caltech secured, Juarez heard from Marbut about playing basketball, which rekindled an athletics flame that had been snuffed by necessity. As for the volleyball part, freshman orientation at Caltech involved a couple of days at the beach, which included some volleyball, naturally. The team captain who was there said to Juarez afterward, “See you at practice on Wednesday.”

For Juarez, sports are not just a passion, but a relief. She said if she did nothing but go through the academic rigors at Caltech every day, she would “go a little crazy.”

But she’s no different from other Caltech student-athletes in that she knows athletics has its place. “We all know academics come first here, but we are able to express ourselves in various ways by using sports to just have fun and improve ourselves in something different,” she said.

Among the activities on her demanding schedule is a job with the admissions office focusing on informing and attracting under-represented populations to Caltech. People always ask her what it takes to get admitted, beyond just having some school smarts.

“We actually reject more applicants with perfect SAT scores than we accept,” she said. “You have to show that you are passionate about math and science, that you want to get out there and try new things and collaborate and push the envelope. Those who can show that spirit the best – even if you don’t have a perfect SAT score – are who we want here.”

Which is why Juarez is there, and why she’ll likely make Pasadena – and El Paso – better for it.