It’s two degrees down and at least one more to go for University of New Mexico student Jenilee Jao.

“I wouldn't be here now if I wasn't grateful. I would have stopped at bachelor’s. But here I am now, finishing up my master's and pursuing my Ph.D. because I don't see any reason to not pursue my higher education here,” Jao said.

Jao is graduating this fall with a Master of Science in Computer Engineering, from the School of Engineering (SOE).

Engineering was not always the destination in Jao’s hard working career. Before she became a Lobo, she earned a bachelor’s in nursing and went to culinary school in the Philippines.

It was not until she opened her own restaurant that Jao understood her heart was not in it. Seeing her sisters’ feelings towards their own careers also had an impact, as one of them earned a degree in computer science.

“After years, a lot of tears, a ton of stress, I decided to pursue a passion and a field that I was really passionate about,” Jao said. “My sister inspired me really to do something technical, and I honestly didn't know if I'd like it at first.”

Her search for top engineering schools led Jao to the U.S., and then to Albuquerque, into the highest-ranked engineering program in the state.

“The SOE is very hands-on. It couldn't get any more hands on than what we have right now,” she said.

The experience she had as an undergraduate student was one she would not trade for the world. Jao felt between professor support, the Engineering Student Center and financial opportunities, there was more to learn, and plenty of help to receive.

“That really is one thing I love about UNM and the SOE specifically is that they have a lot of resources to just help students in general. That really helps with not only my academic life, but my personal life. There's just a lot of help around you,”she said.

In her future career, Jao aims to work with the development of security for computer hardware. That’s something she feels more and more prepared to do now.

She especially praises the exceptional nature of the SOE professors. Even during the pandemic, they went above and beyond to provide a robust education.

“One professor created more than 70 boards and to put a cherry on top, he even gave us the boards right after the semester ended,” Jao said. “That's when I realized that the professors here at UNM really care for their students.”

In between finding a balance between her studies, work and social life, Jao found her now husband within the SOE, in the same department as her. He is also pursuing his P.h.D. and graduating with his master’s in fall 2022. 

“We met in the first semester, actually. I didn't understand a lot at that time, and he knew much more than me. We spent so much time together doing school and were in the same student work. He works as much, if not more than me or harder than me,” she said.

Jao says the stress and difficulty of her beloved career path could make life challenging sometimes. Yet, with the support of her friends and family, she felt like anything was possible.

“Because of them I'm here right now. When you don't know how to figure something out, they really are the ones who will save you,” Jao said. “I don't even know how many times someone has helped me.”

That's a piece of wisdom she could not emphasize enough. Finding emotional and academic support was not just crucial, but easy to find at UNM.

“Being from the Philippines, our education culture is very, very different. When I first came here I had trouble actually asking for help. What I realized was that it's okay to ask for it. The professors love it,” she said.

Jao’s balancing act in the SOE did not go unnoticed. Just when she was preparing to consider her next steps, her advisor proposed an intriguing offer–to pursue her Ph.D.

“I actually was not open to that idea anymore, but I realized I'm fortunate enough to have all these opportunities knocking on my door,” she said. “How could I not take that on if it would mean that my future would be brighter?”

Just one semester into her Ph.D.,Jao is already participating as a research assistant, and was chosen to speak at the SOE’s convocation.

Her friends and family are cheering her on from the Philippines, and although she loves New Mexico, Jao is ready to see them for the first time in five years. 

“My friends back in the Philippines always joke around saying, oh, you're, you're going to be done right? And I've always said, yes, I'm going to be done. This is going to be my last semester. But I don't know, it hasn't happened yet.” Jao said.

Despite obstacles, however, Jao is holding her head high, and is ready to take the professional field by storm.

“Especially being a woman or a minority, I'd say in a very male dominated field, it was a little intimidating at first,” Jao said. “But once I got to actually go through my classes and gain more experience with it, I just really love it. And this is something I believe I can do long term, hopefully for the rest of my life.”