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Rewriting My Legacy

Samuel Acuña is pursuing his PhD in Mechanical Engineering; he shared his story at Worship on October 8, 2017 for a series, “Questions on Our Minds.” On this Sunday, the question was, “How do I make the most of my life?” You can also listen to Samuel share his story after the sermon.

Hello everyone, my name is Samuel Acuña. I wanted to talk to you all about why I am here in graduate school. Currently, I am working on my 5th year, getting a PhD in mechanical engineering. My specialty is biomechanics—taking the tools of a mechanical engineer to examine & fix how the human body moves. I build machines that help people, the latest being a vibrating ankle device for older adults to help prevent them from falling. I really love what I do.

But I didn’t always do this. I am originally from Seattle, WA. One of the biggest employers there is the Boeing Company, who makes the giant commercial airplanes, like the 747. So as a young and eager mechanical engineer with undergraduate schooling under my belt, I was quick to find a job there. And I scored. Big time. Dream job. Not only did I work at Boeing, I worked with the military. We worked on designing the F-22 fighter jets, stealth radar planes, and big bomber airplanes. And some things I’m not legally allowed to talk to you about. I lived in Seattle, near family and friends, and all the awesome Seattle rock music I could handle. And to top it off, I was being paid very nicely. And I really leaned into it… new guitars, new car, no more roommates, fancy clothes, everything. I was living the dream.

There was this quiet older guy in the office where I worked, and one day he brought me aside to tell me he was retiring. He told me he’s loved his time there, but if he could do it all over again, he wouldn’t have worked there. He told me, “You have to understand, that at the end of the day, we are just building better machines to kill people. This is my legacy to the world, and I can’t even talk to my wife about all I’ve done. Make sure you want this to be your legacy too.” This really got to me. The more I thought about it the more I realized that building weapons wasn’t what I wanted my legacy to be. And ethically, I was struggling. Was I contributing in my own small way to a worldwide problem of violence and hate? After some time, I decided to leave the money and the stability behind for something that was true to myself. No disrespect for people working there, it really is an excellent career—but It wasn’t for me. And I couldn’t just go find another job: I had a profound feeling that I needed to atone for the violence that I helped create. So, I decided to use my powers for good, and instead of making machines that hurt people, I was going to go back to school and learn to make machines that help people. This meant going into some debt, living with roommates again, and giving up the car. I also had to go back to my undergrad to take pre-reqs before grad school. I shifted to a meager salary, and now I make just enough money to live on.

But you know what? I’m incredibly happy and satisfied with my life and the work I’m do now. My career took a 180 degree turn—and although this certainly involved more schooling than I originally planned—I am crafting a legacy I’m proud of. My PhD work involves developing a machine that dramatically helps physical rehabilitation by electrically shocking the tongue. I’ve helped people regain their ability to walk. And now, I feel like in my own small way I am helping create a better world for all of us. In fact, we designed this machine to help people who have had a traumatic brain injury. And guess who is funding us? The army—desperate to find ways to help soldiers who have been victims of explosions and blast injuries. The very types of explosions that, in another life, I used to help create.

Thank you.

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