Engineering Vol Finds Success At UT
by Randall Brown
Maria Hernandez Rivero faced challenges on her engineering education journey that most Vols don’t experience. She navigated international political turmoil and a major natural disaster to find her way to academic achievement at Rocky Top.
Rivero was the inaugural recipient of the Dibyendu (Dipu) and Anindita (Ann) Mukherjee Endowed Scholarship in spring 2022. The award, focused on data science, has given a much-appreciated boost to her machine-learning studies. The scholarship highlights Rivero’s success since coming to UT—and her success in simply getting here from her home country of Venezuela.
“UT has opened the doors to a promising future for me,” she said. “It has been a great stimulus—at this university, with excellent professors and a demanding educational system that brings out the best in each student.”
Rivero has strived for excellence in her education and community throughout her career. She was studying electrical engineering at Venezuela’s top-tier Simón Bolívar University when the country’s chaotic political, economic, and social situation seriously affected the school: a lack of educational resources, research programs, and infrastructure maintenance; low salaries; the insecurity of national services; crime; lack of power and water; and other challenges.
“These circumstances led to a massive exodus of both excellent teachers and students, which caused a major crisis and decline in academic standards,” said Rivero, who wanted to help her university and country. “I decided to join the thousands of young Venezuelans who were protesting in the streets, demanding a change for the better.”
Her efforts to help her community led to her being directly threatened by the military in the city where she lived. Hundreds of her fellow community activists were being arrested and tortured, so she and her family worried for her safety. In addition, she and her sister experienced criminal assaults on multiple occasions.
Hoping for a better future for herself and her family, they decided that she would go to Puerto Rico, where one of her uncles lives. There she could study, perfect her English, and eventually help her family financially. It was not an easy move.
“The separation from my family, my friends, and other loved ones affected me emotionally,” said Rivero. “I was terrified of leaving them living this concerning reality.”
Puerto Rico’s offer of safe harbor did not last long. Hurricane Maria devastated the island, creating an urgent and dangerous situation. Rivero had to find shelter and wait for airports to reopen to leave. She did find an important ally—one who would become a permanent fixture in her journey.
“My husband, Jimmy, who at the time was just a friend, was an incredibly huge emotional and financial support, and he helped to leave the island,” she said.
Rivero made it to Orlando, Florida, and spent some time in the US, but returned to Venezuela planning to continue her studies at Simón Bolívar in 2019. The national situation there worsened, however. Widespread blackouts lasted for days, so she often studied by candlelight. Her family lost running water and had to carry water to their home in buckets.
Through the continued support of her husband, friends, and family members, Rivero made it back to the US and was able to reengage her studies at UT. Most of her family is now also safely in the US.
“I feel a deep sadness because I have not seen my middle sister—with whom I grew up and shared many experiences— for three long years,” she said. “I don’t know when I will see her again.”
In the meantime, Rivero continues her studies and research with Assistant Professor Ahmedullah Aziz, looking at ways to use machine learning to analyze databases and predict properties in materials.
“I’m very grateful for the guidance provided by all my academic advisors,” she said. “I’m as well incredibly thankful for my outstanding professors and TAs. With their love and passion for what they do, they have helped me increase my programming knowledge and become a better programmer overall.”
She expresses thanks to many in EECS for mentoring and guidance: Aziz, graduate student Mazharul Islam, Associate Professor Nicole McFarlane, and Lecturer Camille Crumpton.
“Of course, special thanks to Dipu and Ann Mukherjee, who awarded me the scholarships,” said Rivero. “And to the whole EECS department for opening their doors to me and for their financial support.”
Looking to the future, Rivero hopes to use her educational foundation to help others find their way out of situations that might feel impossible to overcome—the very essence of the Volunteer spirit.
“I am where I am right now not only because of my willpower and faith in God but because of the help of several people—my husband, friends, and family,” said Rivero. “I want to provide this possibility to people who have gone through harsh and unfair situations in life, let them know they are not alone and help them rise.”