Gilbert Raya ’12, was working as an engineer in the oil and gas business when he decided to learn something new. The Rice University alumnus had already completed both undergraduate and professional master's degrees in civil engineering. Now, he was curious about economics and finance.
“After working my 9 to 5 job, I’d come home and log into Coursera for my online classes,” he said. “Within two or three courses, studying markets and the flow of money captured my attention in a way my job did not. My life goals seemed more in line with a career in finance, so I went back to school.”
For two years, he balanced his expenses with part-time jobs and savings while completing accounting, finance, and economics courses at Houston Community College. A local recruiter pointed him to a credit union based in Lake Jackson, and Raya began his career in wealth management.
“I knew I had the discipline to make a career change,” said Raya. “Rice is known for its academic rigor and it is not possible to advance through the engineering program without learning and practicing self-discipline from the start. But what Rice is not widely known for is the experiences it offers beyond the classroom — the many opportunities to gain life experiences, to improve yourself, and to master your fears.”
One of the most obvious areas in which Raya improved was his ability to speak in public. He said the beauty of the CEE major is that it includes four disciplines – structural, hydrology, environmental, and urban planning. No matter which discipline a student prefers, they are required to complete courses in all four.
“And the great thing about all those engineering courses is that almost every one required us to present our work at the end of the semester. We were forced to shape our ideas and present them in a way that would communicate our solution to our peers and instructors. We had to both show what we had learned as well as show we had earned a good grade,” said Raya.
“Rice offers many different types of communication coaching and support, and I think we each took advantage of that. From freshman year to Senior Design, we all noticed the growth in the effectiveness and professional quality of our presentation skills.”
In addition to his classroom communication training, Raya was learning how to be a better listener in his residential college and through volunteer activities like alternative spring break work weeks.
Raya said, “The residential college system blends together students from different majors, backgrounds, and career paths. Interacting with my peers really helped me understand that I did not know much about interpersonal communication, and I wanted to refine those skills. Spending time in conversation with the students around me allowed me to practice listening in group settings and one-on-one. I also got to practice speaking to others about my ideas.
“Traveling with the alternative spring break teams, I learned how to support people dealing with homelessness, poverty, and other areas of need in society. Not only did the volunteers have to interview in the project team selection process -good experience for career recruiting! – but we also learned to interact with people dealing with issues we don’t often see on a daily basis in the university setting.”
Raya parlayed his interview and communication training experiences into a successful job search. When an oil and gas career networking event rolled around, he researched the industry, printed resumes, and introduced himself to a number of different companies. He said he was still learning as he went from one recruiter to the next.
“Fear plays a big part in preventing us from going after what we want. Even though I was afraid, going through the process helped me prepare for other unknowns down the road. I got my foot in the door with one recruiter, completed the employer’s interview process, and negotiated my salary offer – all things I had never attempted before.
“So when I decided to transition from engineering to finance, I fell back on my Rice foundation. I had the discipline to complete the work, the attitude and perseverance to stick to a long term plan, and the knowledge that I had already accomplished hard things. I still felt fear, but I also knew I could eventually be successful in other aspects of my life, outside of engineering.”
At the same time he was contemplating a career change, Raya faced another of his fears: dancing in public. He began by taking group lessons in both Country and Western swing dancing, moving from beginner to intermediate dancer over time.
He said, “I was terrified of the whole scene, introducing myself to strangers, asking them to dance, entering into their personal space. But after two years, I transitioned from student to instructor —and that took a completely new skill set. Knowing how to dance is different than showing someone how to dance.
“In another two years, I had finally conquered my instructor fears: What will I say and do for an hour? How will I be perceived? Will I be interrupted? All those disempowering thoughts were nothing like what really happened. It just required practice, like anything else. So I practiced and practiced until both my students and I felt comfortable with the process of moving them from beginning dancer to confident dancer.”
In many ways, the same skills that make Raya a strong dance instructor also allow him to build trust with the clients he advises about financial matters. In his office and in the dance studio, the first interaction sets the tone. When a customer walks in, Raya approaches with a friendly smile and introduces himself.
“Begin with relationship,” he said. “You are friendly, smiling, introducing yourself by name, asking their name. Maybe you joke or find other ways to break down the barriers that exist between strangers. Your interaction is the beginning of an interpersonal connection. As an instructor or a financial advisor, you have to move from friendly acquaintance to the person in charge.”
In a dance studio, Raya might take up the microphone, demonstrate movements and explain with his voice and actions. In a wealth management meeting, he might ask leading questions or suggest an area to explore.
“The important part is – you are the authority here. Demonstrate that by how you say things as well as what you say. Each element of the interaction is important not only for excellent customer service but also for enjoying the time you spend together and for teaching your customer what they came to learn,” he said.
“If you stumble or even fall, you just have to persevere. For me, fear is recurring but I have always found a way to push through it. Like the entrepreneurs I most admire, I am not ashamed to admit failures; they are just stepping stones to a future success. That is the journey for each of us.”
Gilbert Raya completed his B.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering and his Professional Masters Degree in Civil Engineering at Rice University in 2012 and 2013. At the University of Houston, he completed his M.S. in Marketing in 2020 and is completing his M.S. in Finance in 2022.
This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.