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Father of five juggles family and research to earn master’s degree

Father of five juggles family and research to earn master’s degree


DECEMBER 6, 2021 — It takes a special person to pursue a master’s degree while married with five children. Life experiences prepared Dean Kaialau ’20 for this challenge, along with the motivation to provide a better life for his family. His six-year higher education journey comes to an end this month when he receives his Master of Science in mechanical engineering with a concentration in thermal and fluid systems.

Dean served in the U.S. Army for 12 years. During two tours in Iraq, he specialized in the high-risk job of explosive ordinance disposal.

“The veterans who are on campus are super helpful. Having that common background really helped us connect.”

Once he medically retired, ordinance disposal was no longer a career option. To facilitate his transition from military life, he decided to attend college.

“I don't even know what kind of student I would have been had I attended college right out of high school,” Dean said. “In the Army, I learned a lot of discipline and problem-solving skills which helped me be a better student.”

He enrolled at UTSA and earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering in 2020. He gained valuable experience working on the driver tube section of UTSA’s Mach 7 Wind Tunnel. He also developed a sub-scale sCO2 power generation system for his capstone senior design project. The power generation system uses carbon dioxide in the supercritical phase as the working fluid, as opposed to water. Research indicates such a system requires less fuel to generate the same amount of power at higher efficiencies, while also offering opportunities to employ renewable energy heating methods.

With a family, the UTSA graduate thought about entering the workforce immediately. Realizing, however, that a dream job in the aerospace industry required additional education, Dean and his family decided to sacrifice another two years so he could earn his master’s degree.

“When I was a kid, I was always very interested in space. I wanted to be an astronaut or work for NASA in some capacity,” Dean said.

UTSA’s Mach 7 Wind Tunnel project is led by Chris Combs, Dee Howard Endowed Assistant Professor and aerospace program coordinator in the UTSA Department of Mechanical Engineering. Working under Combs, Dean advanced his experimental research working on sCO2 power generation systems and a testing apparatus to explore the properties of detonations.

“Dean was an incredibly valuable member of our team. We had been funded by the Air Force to build a detonation tube for the study of a new type of high-speed detonation-based engine. It was a perfect project for him considering that he worked with explosives during his time in the military,” Combs said. “I was so impressed with his ability to design, build and test this novel facility from scratch. His combination of prior experience, engineering know-how and work ethic led to some great results with this project.”

Working on a post graduate degree can be an all-consuming process. Dean credits UTSA’s thriving veteran student body for providing the camaraderie and support that enabled him to persevere through class work and projects.

“The veterans who are on campus are super helpful. Having that common background really helped us connect,” Dean said. “We often got together to talk about school projects or adjusting to campus life from the military.”

The UTSA Office of Veterans and Military Affairs offers a variety of services to help vets and active military succeed on campus. One key area is guiding students through the application process to receive education funding through sources such as the GI Bill. Two counselors with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are assigned to assist UTSA students. This support gave Dean tremendous peace of mind, allowing him to focus more time on studies and family.

Wendy Foster with Veterans Affairs is always looking out for me,” Dean said. He recalls a time when a policy change took place and she worked with Dean to comply with the new requirements so he could continue receiving benefits. “My benefits would have been denied if Wendy and I hadn’t worked together in a timely manner. It was going to be a problem for me to stay in school if I didn't have those benefits, so she really helped me out.”

Dean’s childhood dream of working for NASA is still a possibility, but he’s excited about his first aerospace position after graduation, wherever he may land.

“I’ve been going to school for several years and with a family I’m excited to complete this chapter of my life at UTSA and see what’s available for a career, wherever that may be,” he added. “We are looking forward to a future that looks bright thanks to my UTSA education and support from faculty and the military community on campus.”

Bruce Forey

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