Hector Aguilar: Scientist by trade, teacher at heart, todo con ganas

February 1, 2022
Hector Aguilar: Scientist by trade, teacher at heart, todo con ganas

Profile photo of Hector Aguilar

Hector Aguilar begins everything he does in the spirit of one specific phrase: con ganas. It’s a personal and professional philosophy that motivated him to become an award-winning instructor.

"Con ganas basically means passion with exceptional work ethic," said Aguilar. "I make that promise on the very first day of class, letting them know that I’m going to give them 100% to try to get them through the course, but they also have to give me 100%. We have to do this together in order for them to be successful."

Con ganas, often spoken by his parents, is also the motto of one of his role models, Bolivian-American educator Jaime Escalante. Most Americans know the story of Escalante from "Stand and Deliver," a 1988 film that earned Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos an Academy Award nomination for lead actor.

Aguilar was a first-generation Hispanic college student – a background he shares with many of his current students. After earning his doctorate in chemistry from UTSA in 2013, he began teaching full-time in UTSA’s Department of Chemistry. He was tasked with navigating notoriously difficult courses by assessing student needs and filling in any gaps in their education. Aguilar knows how to make sure his students learn the course material and helps them develop habits to be successful in science.

"I’m probably known by my students for what they've started calling 'dad talks' throughout the semester, where I talk to them about ganas," said Aguilar.

Aguilar has led several initiatives that help UTSA students succeed academically and be prepared for careers or advanced degrees in the sciences. For example, he identified the need for and created Chemical Writing and Advanced Topics in Organic Chemistry courses. Both courses address specific gaps in student preparedness and have been met with an outpouring of positive feedback.

He also mentors students in the College of Sciences and Honors College (COSHON) program alongside Terri Matiella, a Professor of Instruction in the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology. COSHON provides students with an enriched educational experience, giving them a competitive edge in national scholarships and graduate programs.

"Passion, without worth ethic, is useless," Aguilar said. "Getting students into that growth mindset in many cases can be just as important as those tricks to learning the course material."

Aguilar’s passion for teaching and mentoring also extends to his fellow faculty. In April of 2021, he was one of only three UTSA faculty members inducted into the UT System Academy of Distinguished Teachers. The prestigious advisory and advocacy group is dedicated to fostering classroom innovation, promoting interdisciplinary educational perspectives, and catalyzing the sharing of best practices across campuses in the UT System.

Alongside his fellow events committee co-chair Karen Huxtable-Jester, a faculty member from UT Dallas, Aguilar has planned an annual teaching conference for the Academy. The inaugural conference is scheduled for April 2022 at UT Rio Grande Valley.

"I always say champions adapt. Students are consistently changing, the way they learn is consistently changing, so our teaching strategies have to consistently change," said Aguilar. "I think it’s important that educators are always trying to polish our craft."

Aguilar received the UTSA President’s Distinguished Achievement Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2016 and for University Service in 2020. In 2017, he won the UT System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award, which is largely considered to be the most prestigious teaching award in the state. He is also a member of the UTSA Academy of Distinguished Teaching Scholars.

Despite this recognition, Aguilar says he still sometimes questions himself.

"One thing to know about imposter syndrome is that it doesn’t go away. What you have to develop are the skills to deal with it and how to push through it," said Aguilar. "So if you feel insecure about your ability in a certain topic, don’t run away from it. Find a way to improve on it and hit it head on."

To confront his own imposter syndrome, Aguilar actively participates in many of the Academic Affairs faculty development programs like the ACUE course in effective teaching strategies.

By sharing his experiences with his students and teaching con ganas, Aguilar helps his students reach their maximum potential, and in turn, advances UTSA’s mission to be a model institution for student success. 

Aguilar teaches the following courses:

  • CHE 2603 – Organic Chemistry I
  • CHE 2612 – Organic Chemistry Lab I
  • CHE 3643- Organic Chemistry II
  • CHE 3973- Chemical Communications
  • CHE 4303 – Biochemistry
  • CHE 4643- Advanced Topics in Organic Chemistry

Read more Faculty Features about other interesting and accomplished faculty at UTSA.