Growing up in Cali, Colombia, Dr. Rei Sanchez-Arias was laser focused on succeeding in school and building a successful career in bustling the South American city.
“I never thought of leaving my country or my town,” said Sanchez-Arias, assistant chair of the Data Science and Business Analytics Department at Florida Polytechnic University.
His parents, Reinaldo and Alid, encouraged Sanchez-Arias and his younger brother, Juan Camilo, to learn English and embrace every available academic opportunity.
“I knew how to speak English because Mom put my brother and me in English classes when I was young and we would watch basketball games from an American network on Friday nights to practice our English,” he said. “Mom always pushed us to continue our education, whatever that was, so I took programming classes, English classes, and even a month of guitar lessons.”
When Sanchez-Arias was only 9, his father died of a heart attack, leaving the small family to rely on one another with the support of a large extended family.
“My mom always saw education as the one equalizer for any opportunity in the future,” he said. “She knew that given our race – my mom is white and my dad is Black – and socioeconomic status, regardless of what we would do, there may be situations where folks may be biased, and education was a way to fight this bias.”
While his brother pursued a medical career, Sanchez-Arias was drawn to academia. After completing a bachelor of science in mathematics in his hometown, he jumped at an opportunity to complete his Ph.D. in computational science in the United States.
“I had no clue about the process of going through admissions or what I would need,” Sanchez-Arias said. “I arrived with one suitcase, one backpack, a laptop, and a pillow.”
Now that he is in a position of influence, he works to help students feel comfortable with college life.
“I connect with Hispanic and Latinx students and other underrepresented minority students because of my heritage,” he said. “They know where I grew up and they feel welcome.”
Eventually, he hopes to help international students transition to Florida Poly by getting involved in a more formal capacity.
“I was a graduate international student and I understand all the hoops and hurdles we have to go through. I also know what its like to be hundreds and thousands of miles away from family,” he said.
Since joining Florida Poly in 2018, Sanchez-Arias has been very involved in helping to shape its growing Department of Data Science and Business Analytics.
“Our environment here is very agile and open to new opportunities and initiatives, and (department chair) Dr. (Shahram) Taj has been very welcoming in considering new ideas,” Sanchez-Arias said.
Additionally, watching his students’ success has provided significant professional fulfillment, he said.
“I’m proud to see my students get the types of jobs they’re getting and securing internships and summer research opportunities,” Sanchez-Arias said. “It makes me happy, and I hope I can continue to contribute to the quality of the degree and the quality of the graduates we are training.”
Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series of feature stories that highlight diversity on Florida Poly’s campus and celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month.
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