For Ronny Fray Regato, a senior software engineering major from North Port, the voyage from high school through service in the U.S. Navy and enrolling at Florida Gulf Coast University was a modern-day example of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
In Fray’s case, the torpedoes were of the metaphorical variety, in the form of obstacles real and perceived, as opposed to actual underwater explosives. But the first-generation college student was no less determined to attack his goals full sail.
He credits the Navy and FGCU’s Office of Military and Veteran Success with helping chart his course toward an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and a career as a software engineer.
“Neither of my parents attended college, and I was unsure about my potential success in college,” said Fray, who enrolled in the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps in high school. “What I was sure about was that the military offered discipline, the opportunity to travel the world and real experience in a field or trade. As a first-generation Ecuadorian American, I also saw military service as a way to give back to the nation that had adopted me.”
His Navy service would profoundly impact his eventual decision to enroll at FGCU after scoring highest in his class on initial technical training. “That experience and change of environment taught me that hard work and internal motivation can result in excellence, which is something I did not realize in high school,” he said.
Fray served four years on active duty, three of them deployed to Japan, including serving aboard the USS Chancellorsville with duties in the area of anti-submarine warfare. During that time, he began working alongside military and civilian engineers.
“I was impressed by the level of knowledge and trust held by the engineers. I worked on computer systems, and I became fascinated with programming,” he said. “Encouraged by my success in the military and with the support of military officers over me, I decided to pursue a college education in software engineering.”
While on leave visiting with family, he was encouraged by a friend to visit FGCU. After a campus tour, Fray was sold, deciding to enroll and study software engineering after first completing his general requirements. He earned his associate’s degree from State College of Florida while still on active duty.
Helping ease the transition to higher education was Troy Bolivar, FGCU’s director of military and veteran success. “Troy has been there for me and many other student veterans as a source of advice, guidance and advocacy for veteran-related matters,” said Fray, president of the FGCU chapter of Student Veterans of America. “It has been great working alongside and learning from a former student-veteran who has walked the path I am on now.”
The organizational skills Fray exhibits as leader of the student veterans chapter will serve him well in his career, Bolivar said. “Ronny is a leader, and he is not afraid of challenges. I am so grateful to be in the position where I can work with leaders like Ronny. As a veteran myself, I know that getting out of the military is a huge transition, and student veterans often feel lost and alone. I love that I have the opportunity to show other veterans that they have a support system and then empower them to achieve their goals.”
Over the summer, Fray began an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, working on software and systems for managing mission operations. This fall, he is working with a company based in Florida supporting U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs modernization efforts for a two-semester capstone senior software engineering project.
“It has been an incredible experience bringing together a team of peers to support a real-world software project,” he said. “The experience I obtained at the Jet Propulsion Lab has been indispensable in my work so far on the senior project. I’m grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had at FGCU to apply the skills learned in the classroom on real-world projects with visible impacts.”
After graduating next semester, Fray plans to become a software engineer at NASA or return to active duty as a naval officer in cryptologic warfare. “Both career paths have a strong sense of purpose attached to them and would be a great way to use the skills I’ve acquired through the software engineering program,” he said.
Fray characterized his time at FGCU as an invaluable experience. “I have no doubt I chose the right place at the right time to meet my goal of one day becoming a software engineer. As a first-generation student, attending college always seemed far away and uncertain. Also being a transitioning service member added to that uncertainty,” he said. “The reality was much different.”