Making History Through Engineering: Hector S. Blanco Gavillan ’18 ’22MS

Full disclosure: the author has known the subject of this alumni spotlight for the past 15 years or so. In addition to what you will read about him in the article below, he is wise beyond his years, unfailingly polite, and possibly the kindest young man she knows.


Even though Hector Blanco Gavillan is an Atlanta-based structural engineer with two degrees from UCF’s acclaimed College of Engineering and Computer Science, there was a time, about 20 years ago, when he aspired to become a world-class roller-coaster designer. A tycoon, if you will.

The first iteration of RollerCoaster Tycoon debuted in 1999; Blanco Gavillan does not remember when he first played the simulation game, but once he tried it, he was hooked.

group of students
CECS graduate Hector Blanco Gavillan, second from left, stays in touch with his high-school friends.

For those who may not remember, the premise of the game is to complete a series of preset scenarios by successfully building and maintaining amusement parks through business ownership as a theme park entrepreneur, according to Wikipedia.

Ever since the quiet, introspective Blanco Gavillan was introduced to video games, he always preferred simulation games like RCT instead of action, platformer, RPG, or other types. He saw that there was more of a strategy involved in RCT.

“For example,” Blanco Gavillan says with a laugh, “You wouldn’t want to build a food stand right next to the exit of a rollercoaster; sometimes, a customer would exit a jostling coaster and become, um, sick.”

The unfailingly polite Blanco Gavillan actually used a less decorous word, but you get the idea. He enjoyed playing video games when he got home from school; he didn’t realize it at first, but he was increasingly bored by his elementary school classes.

“I learned later that kids like me – who got Cs and Ds in school – are probably not being challenged,” Blanco Gavillan says.”

When he was in third grade, his grandfather, who was a guidance counselor for Volusia County Schools, talked to his grandson’s school administrators and asked him to be tested for the gifted program.

The test, as Blanco Gavillan recalls, was more of an interview than a written test. The Florida Department of Education defines gifted students as “students who have superior intellectual development and are capable of high performance.”

Not bored anymore: Blanco Gavillan begins gifted classes

Blanco Gavillan began the gifted program as a fourth-grader. He had to switch schools; at the time, his school was not offering the program, so he transferred to a school that did. It wasn’t a big deal for him, he said that he probably switched schools every year since kindergarten. His parents had divorced amicably when he was 5, and until about the eighth grade, he recalled having to move every year or so.

“Even though my parents were divorced, they realized they had one thing in common and that was me,” Blanco Gavillan says. “I never felt that I was from ‘a broken home’ or whatever.”

Through the gifted program, as well as gentle nudging from his parents, Blanco Gavillan began to see possibilities.

“I was definitely not bored anymore,” he says. Even though gifted class was just one day a week, the curriculum included some chemistry lessons, some information about the solar system that he wasn’t getting through his regular classes. Through his exposure in gifted program, he was inspired to select an introduction to engineering elective in middle school.

The puzzle of engineering, and figuring it all out

As an engineer, Blanco Gavillan knows that the field is usually composed of individuals who excel in math and science.

“Math was never my favorite subject,” he says. “I liked history, social studies, and language arts. I enjoyed learning about the world and asking questions.”

The knowledge he unlocked through his inquisitiveness was part of a bigger puzzle, he thinks. And also part of the bigger reason why he liked RollerCoaster Tycoon so much.

“It’s not officially an engineering game,” Blanco Gavillan says, “But you do have to solve the puzzle of how to build and keep your theme park running.”

He also enjoyed building with Lego, which probably had an influence on his interest in structural engineering.

“Lego give immediate feedback regarding the structural integrity of your building,” Blanco Gavillan says. “If you build a tall, narrow tower without any kind of base, you realize quickly that the tower will topple over. But, with the addition of a wider base, you instantly improve its stability.”

Blanco Gavillan also realized that math was “just a big puzzle.”

His parents told their bright son he would need math, no matter what profession he chose. Blanco Gavillan had already seen examples in his family how a lack of education could hinder one’s employment.

“Math was hard until about the eighth grade,” Blanco Gavillan says. “Then something clicked. It wasn’t EASY, but it did get easier. Next thing I knew, I was in college taking Calculus 3.”

The decision to become an engineer probably happened in high school, he says. Previous careers, like becoming a writer or a historian, were considered and quickly discarded. Once his father told him that engineers make a lot of money, he began to focus on that goal.

“As a preteen, I started questioning things more,” Blanco Gavillan says. “Figuring out why things work has always been behind my motivation for engineering. Even when the chain would fall off when I was riding my bike, I liked being able to figure out how to put the chain back on.”

student on wrestling mat
In high school, Hector Blanco Gavillan was a standout wrestler who was scouted by many colleges.

He was accepted into his high school’s engineering program and was also active in cross country and wrestling. He especially excelled in the latter, to the extent that he was scouted from schools outside Florida. His father, who was from Philadelphia, had also taken him on a college tour of the area; they visited Villanova, the University of Pennsylvania, and Temple University, where his father had attended. They also went to NYC to tour Columbia University. It was all a bit of a sensory overload for Blanco Gavillan.

Back in Florida, he had to think strategically and practically about his finances. He did not have a car or college fund, and although he was eligible for Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship Program, that did not cover out-of-state colleges or universities.

What could have eased some of his costs was had he been a dual-enrolled student. Florida’s college system allows secondary students to simultaneously earn credit toward a high school diploma, a career certificate, and an associate or baccalaureate degree at a Florida public or eligible private institution.

“I mean, if I had to do it over again, I probably should have tried dual enrollment,” Blanco Gavillan says. But again, with no car, it would have been difficult, and he likely would not have been able to participate in sports.

Blanco Gavillan says he knew that taking out student loans could be detrimental to his future.

“I like to think that I’m smart about money,” he says. “I knew I wanted to stay in state because of the affordability. I also didn’t want to live in the dorms, because of the money.”

He started thinking about Seminole State, which was close by. He realized that there was the DirectConnect program to UCF that guarantees admission to UCF (consistent with university policy) when the incoming student has an associate degree or articulated degree from one of its partner state colleges.

He knew that he would still have to work; his mom was on dialysis, and from time to time, he helped whenever he could.

“My employers knew during the interview process what my needs were,” Blanco Gavillan says. “We had that conversation from the start. Thankfully, I had employers who were willing to work with me, even at my first job, Taco Bell. I always put school first because I knew jobs were temporary.”

He also learned some important soft skills from working; at a department store, he worked on commission. Not only did he earn more money than from a minimum wage job, but he overcame some shyness and mastered the art of talking to people. And, as an added bonus, he used his store discount to purchase some suits for job interviews.

While at UCF, Blanco Gavillan was exposed to overviews of the engineering field, but settled (no pun intended) on civil engineering, a discipline that deals with the design, construction and maintenance of the physical and naturally built environment, including public works such as roads, bridges, canals, dams, etc.

“The other engineering fields did not offer something that I could build, you know?” Blanco Gavillan says. “Something that everyone could use and will last long after I’m gone. I don’t consider myself that creative, but civil engineering allows me to leave my mark on the world.”

group of construction workers
Blanco Gavillan, along with other workers at Kimley-Horn in Atlanta, worked on an emergency concrete spillway that was being constructed for an earth dam. He conducted weekly site visits, measured rebar spacing and concrete thickness to ensure the work was completed to design.

For his senior project in CECS, Blanco Gavillan and his classmates were given parameters, each engineering specialty had a specific role. The students were told that they were given a plot of land upon which the developer wanted to build multi-family residences and shops. Blanco Gavillan was the designated “structural guy.”

The other members of the team had to figure out how to modify the existing roads to accommodate increased traffic, and how to follow federal regulations to incorporate the proper drainage, pipes, lift stations, etc.

“We had to design a pedestrian bridge for the visitors to use when they went from the apartments to the shops,” Blanco Gavillan says. “Bridge design is usually part of grad school, but they gave the design to us. I designed it, but I knew it wasn’t the coolest bridge.”

One of the judges asked Blanco Gavillan why he had made the beam so wide. He was momentarily caught off guard, because the bridge still worked, according to the specs that he had cited for his work. The judge, however, told him he could have saved the client a lot of money by using a narrower beam which would still have gotten the job done.

When Blanco Gavillan was in his undergraduate studies, he knew that he would have to start looking for internships to help build his résumé. He used his high school connections and began interning at a small land development company.

“It was four hours a week, but it was a paid internship,” Blanco Gavillan says. “I think I still have that check somewhere as my first engineering job.”

His next job, at Traffic Engineering Data Solutions, also gave him valuable exposure to transportation engineering, and even better, paid him $20 an hour.

“This was way better than working at Taco Bell, or the department store, or at the diners.” He worked there for three years, while finishing his master’s degree, which was, in the world of structural engineering, a golden ticket.

He started applying for jobs out of state, even though he didn’t really want to leave Florida. After spending a contractually-obligated year at a firm in Atlanta, he connected with a recruiter on LinkedIn, and was offered a job at Kimley-Horn Atlanta Midtown.

“I love this company,” Blanco Gavillan says. “I work specifically as a civil analyst within the structures team where I get exposure to both vertical and horizontal projects. I inspect the beams in a parking garage, for example. I’ve been working on one bridge for a while, looking at the beams, doing the design adhering to the GDOT manual specs.”

Hector and his fiancee, Kelly Perez Cardenas ’17.

In his spare time, Blanco Gavillan and his fiancee, Kelly Perez Cardenas ’17, explore downtown Atlanta, and he plays in a Sunday recreational soccer league – one of his favorite activities.

He also finds time to play video games every once in a while; no more RCT for him, as he is now living the dream. Instead, he hops online with his brother and friends to destress and catch up during FIFA.

Blanco Gavillan’s parents are doing well and are proud of their son. His mother recently received a new kidney after many years of being on the transplant list. She has moved back to the Orlando area to help with her own aging parents.

Blanco Gavillan says that as he reflected on his early years in the public school system, he can see how others might have thought he had gone through some difficult times.

“I have had it so much easier than a lot of people,” he says. “I’ve never had a rough life, I’ve never had to deal with hunger or violence, and I always knew that my parents love me and support me. If anyone reads this, I would just want them to know that if you put your mind to it, and stay consistent and disciplined, you can get it done. If I can do it, anyone can do it.”

Featured Image for the Contact Us Bar
Contact Us