Alan Gomez

Executive Director Tim Lawrence had just delivered a presentation on SkillsUSA to industry, education and government leaders at a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education conference in Arlington, Va. An audience member was about to add an unexpected exclamation point to the message.

“People were nodding their heads,” Alan Gomez recalls the panel discussion, sponsored by STEMconnector. “But sometimes, people don’t really understand.” So the president and chief academic officer of the STEM Academy stood, revealed himself as a SkillsUSA alumnus and shared his story of how it transformed a rudderless high-school student into a visionary leader in education reform.

That story took root in Milwaukee, where Gomez, now 42, was born. “[My family] didn’t really have a lot,” he remembers. “Upper lower class, maybe lower middle class.” His performance in high school hit similar marks. “I was the kid who just got by,” he says. “Nothing really inspired me.”

It finally took an uninspiring comment from a guidance counselor to motivate him. “She told me I shouldn’t bother going to college,” Gomez reveals, “that I’m ‘not college material.’ ” He doesn’t recall the counselor’s name, but he does remember her secretary: Janice Pallon.

“[Pallon] said, ‘If you have the desire to be there, go,’” Gomez fondly recollects. The two diametrically opposed comments yielded one result: a newly inspired student on a mission to forge his future.

Gomez had already acquired another ally on that mission, and he would soon come to understand how important an ally it could be; he’d recently become a member of SkillsUSA. “One of my instructors, Jim Reinhard, got me to join and participate in the contests,” Gomez says. But it was more than just the contests that began to influence the young student.

“At first, it was more social than leadership,” he adds. “But we got to learn and love the organization, and later, it became leadership. I didn’t know it at the time, but SkillsUSA kept me connected, gave me a rationale for being [in school] and gave me the leadership and survival skills to get through and beyond any obstacles.”

Gomez labels his first competitive experience (in Cabinetmaking) a “colossal failure.” The next year, he became the state champion. “I adapted,” he explains. “I had a plan to optimize my time before I even started. It was that organization and those [soft] skills I learned in SkillsUSA that got me through.”

Those skills became a launching point for Gomez after high school, as his guidance counselor’s advice went spectacularly unheeded: three years in architectural school, a bachelor’s degree in education, a career as a technology education instructor on the middle- and high-school levels, a master’s degree in education and, most recently, a Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering from the University of Wisconsin, where he currently teaches. He’s also served as a SkillsUSA advisor, part of a team at Sun Prairie (Wis.) Area School District that grew the program from nothing in 2005 into the state’s largest SkillsUSA chapter by 2010. The once uninspired student is now inspiring change in education with curriculum he’s developed through the STEM Academy, an organization Gomez co-founded in 2008 (www.stem101.org).

“Decision-makers in education think if it was good enough the way they did it ‘back then,’ it’s good enough today,” he says. “That’s not a vision. That’s like a wake at a funeral.”

How do programs like SkillsUSA fit in? “Here’s where the hair on the back of my neck stands up,” Gomez exclaims. “STEM is an integrated approach to education. SkillsUSA is a celebration of the things that are integrated in class and school. It’s evidence that you ‘can do’ and are not just a piece of paper. GPA is an indicator of your potential. It’s not the only indicator.” Gomez is evidence of that. •