“Diego is a very bright young man, multi-talented, a great student, skilled athlete, entrepreneurial and an excellent communicator,” says provost Peter Senkbeil, who has become an informal mentor to him.
Diego grew up in Gilbert, Arizona, in a “very Peruvian household, blasting Hispanic music all the time, with lots of family parties and festivities,” Diego says. “My mom would make dishes for us while the music played. She was always proud of who we were but also grateful for where we were, in the U.S.”
Spanish was the primary language of the house, though Diego and his sister always spoke to each other in English. Peruvian culture, he says, is family-oriented and physically affectionate.
“Our family gives hugs and kisses you on the cheek and cuddles with you,” Diego says. “That’s the sort of love you show.”
They were also strongly aspirational, and both Diego and his sister swam competitively in high school. Though Diego describes himself as a “chubby little kid” his first year of high school, he had a knack for swimming the 500 freestyle.
“I had good endurance,” he says. “My coach was astounded that such a chubby kid had such endurance.”
He soon broke school records in the 500 free (by 30 seconds) and in three other events, including two relays. He made state finals two years in a row. A friend who had attended CUI encouraged him to look into it, and a campus visit and open invitation from the swim coach sold him on Irvine.
“I loved the school,” Diego says. “It was different from all the other ambiences I’ve been in. It gave me a sense of peace and purpose. Irvine has high opportunity, a lot of great companies and chances to connect with good people. It’s been amazing here.”
The first in his immediate family to attend college in the United States, he got involved immediately, declaring a major in business and a minor in biology, and working in campus human resources as a student worker, taking summer jobs, tutoring people in math, and serving as an RA to ease the financial strain on his family.
“The university puts opportunities there for anyone to grasp and I’ve tried to take all of them as best I could.
He also volunteered for a year at the OC Rescue Mission, made the dean’s list every year and, of course, swam.
“The University puts opportunities there for anyone to grasp and I’ve tried to take all of them as best I could,” he says.
One opportunity paid off bigger than most. Diego and a fellow student entered the annual Cornelius Business Plan competition with an idea for a smart watch for babies which functions as a digital nanny, informing parents if the watch gets wet, or goes beyond a certain radius, and keeping track of vital signs and GPS location.
“We presented it to a panel of judges just for the experience, and the next thing you know they said we had won first place,” Diego says. “We were shocked.”
The duo shared the $3,000 prize.
Diego also received a scholarship from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, an independent entity which gives awards and opportunities to students who represent the Hispanic community well. Because of the mentoring relationship he had developed with Dr. Senkbeil, Diego invited him to attend the awards banquet with him and Diego’s girlfriend.
“Dr. Senkbeil and I talk a lot and I see him as someone I can strive to follow,” Diego says. “I can talk to him about anything. We share similar values and the same views on things. He’s been very supportive of me in my academic journey.”
As for the scholarship, “I was excited. It was a good surprise,” Diego says. He has also received CUI’s alumni scholarship and the first-team all-academic athletes award from the Pacific Collegiate Swimming and Diving conference.
While thriving in the U.S., Diego hopes to instill Peruvian culture into his children as well, by speaking Spanish in the household and traveling to the country regularly.
“I want them to know where part of them came from,” he says. “Even though I grew up in a low-income household, I was luckier than most because my parents love me so much and cared for me, and I always felt that. We didn’t really travel but we would always have a family party or I would hang out with my cousins. I wouldn’t trade where I came from and who I am. It gave me a lot of adversity and I don’t think I would be as strong today as I would be without it.”