Ranked the No. 1 university in the QS World University Rankings for nine consecutive years, a familiar name is bound for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this fall: Yuma County’s own Diego Salgado.
The 2017 Cibola High School valedictorian currently resides in Durham, North Carolina, where he’s wrapping up his final semester as a mechanical engineering major at Duke University. There on a full-ride scholarship, Salgado will also graduate with a certificate in aerospace engineering – which he’ll begin studying on the graduate level come August in hopes of focusing his research on sustainable aviation.
“Aviation, the environment, how to reduce emission,” he explained. After attaining his master’s degree, Salgado plans to remain at MIT and pursue a doctorate.
As far as garnering acceptance into one of the world’s most prestigious institutions, Salgado said he’s still processing the news.
“Right now, it hasn’t set in yet,” he said. “I’m very excited and I’m looking forward to going there; MIT is the best engineering school in the entire country.”
Initially Salgado had his sights set on someday working for NASA. While that’s still a dream he’s fostering, his admission to MIT has opened an array of doors he could potentially walk through.
“There are a lot of different possibilities,” he said. “If I get a PhD from MIT, I could one day be a professor somewhere; I could work for NASA, I could work for another company, I could start my own company. There’s a lot of different things that I can do now that I hadn’t even considered before.”
Born, raised and educated in Yuma until beginning his undergraduate studies on the East Coast, Salgado returned home in the summer of 2019 to intern with McCarthy Building Companies for the third time, working on the construction sites of Dorothy Hall Elementary School and Yuma Regional Medical’s Center’s cafeteria and kitchen project.
Though he worked alongside Salgado on these and other projects in Yuma, McCarthy project manager John Kovesdy said he can’t – nor does he want to – claim any leading role in Salgado’s success story.
“This is 100% his own accomplishment,” said Kovesdy. “It’s been a pleasure working with Diego; he is an extremely intelligent individual, super humble, works extremely hard and deserves everything that he’s earned in life. I am extremely proud of him and excited for his success. He represents Yuma really well.”
According to Salgado, without his network of supporters here in Yuma – among which he counts Kovesdy – he wouldn’t be who or where he is today.
“In Yuma, I never felt limited – I never felt that I couldn’t do something, and that was primarily due to the people around me,” he said. “At school and even at McCarthy, I always had people around me who supported me in what I wanted to do. Sure, I had good grades, but having a support system to help you and keep you focused to continue on the right path is exponentially important. My high school experience in Yuma, my time with McCarthy – they really helped me to believe in myself.”
Salgado is no stranger to the perception that Yuma is lacking in opportunities for personal and professional development; he’s heard it from others all his life. But he sees the bordertown through a different lens. The way he sees it, it’s a matter of perspective.
“I’ve definitely heard people complain that Yuma’s very small and there’s not a lot of opportunities out there,” he said. “And I mean, sure, if you compare it to a big city like Phoenix, there’s more things going on there – but at the end of the day, if you believe in yourself and work toward your goals, there’s always opportunities out there regardless of where you go. The whole notion that there’s no opportunities in Yuma, I just don’t think that’s true. If anything, being from Yuma might be an advantage. It’s smaller, so it’s easier to access people; if you want to learn about something in industry, you contact someone in Yuma and learn under them. You have tighter connections, a better support system.”
To students considering their own college and career paths, Salgado offers some advice he’s picked up and learned to put into practice along the way.
“Take advantage of what’s out there,” he said. “Don’t get caught up on ideas like ‘I’m not smart enough for that.’ Just do it; if it doesn’t work out, go try something else. But don’t limit yourself because you think you can’t do it – you’re already limiting yourself before even trying by selling yourself short. At the end of the day, you’re responsible for your own success. If you’re waiting for somebody else to make it happen for you, it’s not going to happen.”
While he’d prefer to eventually resettle on the West Coast, Salgado realizes he could end up anywhere – but there’s only one place his heart can call “home.”
“Yuma County – for me, that’s home,” he said. “It’s where I went to school, I grew up there, my family and friends are there. I know when some people move somewhere else they say, ‘This is home now.’ But I don’t think that way.”