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Matthew Wood can thank the friend from his sixth-grade math class for inspiring his current career in aerospace engineering. While learning the principles of pre-algebra, the pair would discuss the more interesting topic of aviation. Wood’s friend would show off his model airplanes and talk about his dream of becoming a pilot. These daily discussions sparked an interest that Wood didn’t realize he had. He soon joined a University of Florida-sponsored STEM club called Gator Trax to explore the world of science and engineering.

That early encounter with STEM was the first step toward Wood’s eventual career path. Now, he’s ready to take an bigger step — graduating from UCF with his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. Wood is one of 6,200 students expected to graduate from UCF this fall. He joins 9,400 alumni of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

As he reflects on his journey at UCF, Wood recalls many great memories, especially of Knights football games and tailgating.

“The one I remember most was in my first semester when my wife was eight months pregnant, still cheering UCF on,” Wood says. “The last game we went to was this semester when we got to bring both of the kids to their first game and my son got to meet Knightro. He was so excited!”

Overcoming Obstacles

While Wood’s experience at UCF was positive, the path toward his education wasn’t free of obstacles. After being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, he struggled to accept his neurodiversity and some of the limits that result from it. That led to Wood overextending himself, and even failing a few classes. The Air Force ROTC cadet also lost his ROTC scholarship and came close to losing his chance to commission into the aviation branch of the military.

“Fortunately, I made good relationships along the way and there were leaders who advocated on my behalf to keep me in the program to commission,” Wood says. “It took those hard lessons, failures, let-downs and pushbacks to get me to advocate for myself in every aspect with school, work, ROTC and at home.”

After learning how to set boundaries and communicate better, Wood rebounded. He pulled his GPA up and is now set to commission with the U.S. Space Force.

To Infinity and Beyond

Wood’s military career is positioned for takeoff, but it actually began long before his days at UCF. He originally enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2012, with the goal of becoming an engineer. But upon discovering that the Air Force offered competitive programs that would pay for college, Wood decided to leave the branch and contract with AFROTC.

His decision to become a Knight was easy. As a native of Apopka, the location was both familiar and convenient. The reputation of the aerospace engineering program was also a plus. While earning his degree, Wood landed his current job at SpaceX as a payload integration specialist. His team ensures that the cargo is properly installed and protected for deployment from the spacecraft.

“What I love about working there is the pace at which we work, the constant strive for improvement of processes and hardware,” Wood says. “It doesn’t matter who’s idea it is, whether it’s an engineer or technician, improvements are always accepted. There is always room for self-improvement and people can grow very quickly in their career at SpaceX.”

His career choice was kismet. The AFROTC cadet has been commissioned in the U.S. Space Force, where he’ll work with companies like SpaceX, bringing his career full circle. Although he’s faced challenges, he’s also found much success during his college career. Personally, he started a family. Professionally, he’s launched a new chapter of his career.

“Since I’ve started at SpaceX, I’ve had two promotions and I’ve worked 85 launches including Dragon missions,” Wood says. “I feel a huge sense of accomplishment being selected for the USSF as well because it’s competitive to get into.”