Victor E. Portugués and his wife, Carmen L. Santa, knew their five children not only needed, but deserved, the best education possible to succeed in today’s world. The degree that Mr. Portugués obtained from the University of Puerto Rico – Mayaguez, as an Industrial and Mechanical Engineer, led to his position as Under Secretary of Housing for the Government of Puerto Rico from 1972 – 1976 and prepared him to own and operate a successful real estate development company. With Ms. Santa working as a math teacher, they both recognized the potential in their five children, daughters Mei-Ling, Sue-Mei, and Joi-Ling, and sons Omar and Victor, and fully understood the important role education could play in shaping their young lives. Proud of their Puerto Rican heritage, they wanted their children to honor their roots, while at the same time expanding their horizons to the larger world.
Nearly 2,000 miles away, a small university in upstate New York attracted the family’s attention because of its stellar engineering reputation and management connections. When the eldest daughter, Mei-Ling (right
), entered the Rensselaer freshman class of 1982, Rensselaer began a decade long relationship with the family that would culminate in four of the five children receiving a combined total of seven Rensselaer degrees. While it is not unusual to see siblings attend Rensselaer, as often the positive experience of one student provides the catalyst for another member of the family to apply, four in such a short period of time is certainly unique. “It was nice having my family there and my parents spent a great deal of time on campus,” Sue-Mei reflected. “Everyone knew my parents and called my father, ‘Father of the Lings’. My mother always brought Puerto Rican food and my family developed a lot of ties on campus that hold true today.”
Stepping onto campus during the summer of 1982, Mei-Ling led the way by graduating with the first two degrees, a BS (1986) and an MS (1987) in Industrial and Management Engineering. In order to help her complete her master’s degree, Mei-Ling was awarded with a scholarship geared toward female minorities. Mei-Ling was also part of the Women’s tennis team for part of her tenure at Rensselaer.
Sue-Mei Portugués (left
) joined Mei-Ling the following year in 1983 when she became part of the Class of 1987. Sue-Mei’s first experience with RPI was as part of the Bridge program, a program that the rest of the family would take part in. Sue-Mei said, “My first experience with RPI was with the Bridge program, during which time I took summer classes to give me a head start with school. This program really motivated me to make it, as I knew it would be harder for me being not only a minority, but also a woman.”
Make it, she did, as she went on to earn the third and fourth degrees for the Portugués children, by earning a BS (1987) in Management and an MBA from Rensselaer in 1988. Sue-Mei was part of Pi Beta Phi, the Hispanic Engineering Club and was listed in the Who’s Who Among American College Students in 1987.
With two sisters making their mark at Rensselaer, Omar Portugués was not to be left behind. (Omar is shown at left, back row, third from left, with the 1990 Men's RPI Varsity Baseball team.) As a notable student-athlete, Omar was able to successfully juggle sports and academics. He played on the 1987 Rensselaer baseball team which won the Upstate New York Division II title that year. In 1990 his team won a record 28 games and received an invitation to the NCAA Division III Championships for the first time in Rensselaer history.
Omar graduated from Rensselaer with a BS in Management (1990) and an MBA (1992). After graduate school, his first job was in Admissions at RPI. His goal was to help change the policy on admitting students with lower GPAs and he is one of the pioneers of making that change. He also advised students who weren't admitted to Rensselaer, on how to achieve that goal.
But the Portugués family had not completed their Rensselaer experience – they still had one more degree to earn. Joi-Ling (right
), the remaining daughter, was admitted to Rensselaer in 1987, and earned her BS in management in 1991. Joi-Ling went on to receive the Latin Student Association Leadership Award. While Joi-Ling would be the last of the children to attend Rensselaer, Victor A. Portugués attended the University of Florida, Gainesville, where he graduated in with a BS in management in 2000, and Inter American University, Puerto Rico, where he earned an MBA in 2004.
One Family: Seven Rensselaer Degrees
In 1987, Victor Portugués could count all four of his five children enrolled at Rensselaer. Mei-Ling was about to finish graduate school. Sue-Mei would join her to finish her undergraduate degree, while Joi-Ling and Omar were undergraduates. This may well be a record at Rensselaer or any other university. In fact, Sue-Mei recalled being recognized at the 1987 commencement: “In 1987, my sister Mei-Ling was graduating with her MBA, I was graduating with my BS, Omar was just finishing up his freshman year and Joi-Ling was about to begin. At the graduation, my parents were given seats right along with all of the graduates, which we thought was weird at the time, but we just went with it. However, as soon as we heard the President say, I would like to introduce you to a special family, we knew he could only be talking about us. He proceeded to call out each family member, and while my siblings and I were mortified, my parents were very proud.” By 1992, the family had earned four undergraduate and three graduate degrees, and had become a brilliant example for academic diversity and perseverance.
Omar said a key point to not only his success, but his entire family’s success, at Rensselaer was the assistance that was always readily available. “Once you are at RPI, it’s very good in providing guidance – from the Office of Minority Students to my advisor within the School of Management – everyone was always willing to help out,” Omar said. “This constant guidance makes the life of a student, especially that of a minority student, very easy. Rensselaer has been like a second family to me.”
They have carried their pursuit of excellence into their careers, as well. Mei-Ling has been a Portfolio Manager and Management Consultant, and currently teaches high school mathematics, where she strives to bring real-world applications into the classroom and encourages students to seek higher education. Sue-Mei has worked in a variety of business positions and after working as a Strategic and Marketing Consultant for LA Business in Italy for 25 years, recently relocated to Boston to begin a career as a High Tech Head Hunter. Joi-Ling is currently the Human Resources Director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Omar is a seasoned entrepreneur, having started companies in the fields of aviation, brokerage, marketing, and consulting.
A Legacy for the Future
The Portugués family represents the pinnacle of achievement for underrepresented majorities in higher education for Rensselaer and for the future. The family is still proudly waving the Rensselaer flag today and truly believes that Rensselaer can provide minority students with a remarkable education and supportive college experience. Omar offered, “RPI is a good investment for minorities and corporate America because it attracts top talent. Everyone at Rensselaer was very supportive throughout my time there and made me feel at home even though I was so far away.”
Victor Portugués and Carman Santa can be proud of the accomplishments of their children and confident that they are forging a pioneering path for students from Puerto Rico and around the world. Rensselaer can also take pride in its role in educating the Portugués family with seven degrees and preparing them for a lifetime of success.