“I wondered what I could do to get in the right direction,” she said. “I first joined because of a lack of direction and stability and confidence. I gave it a shot and hoped that it would work out.”
After taking a military aptitude test, Pena decided to work in aerospace propulsion.
“We had to do blade inspections, fuel filters and run all four engines, which was the most exciting part,” she said.
Pena said she gained leadership skills as she moved from an apprentice to a journeyman during her seven years of service.
“I actually got that responsibility of checking over someone’s work and realizing that my job is important,” she said. “I knew this plane is going to fly and have people in it and anything that happens, I’ve got my signature on it. I’m responsible.”
Pena was deployed to Qatar for three four-month periods.
“I did my same journeyman work but in the desert and for longer hours,” she said.
Both of Pena’s parents served in the Army, and her grandfather is an Air Force veteran. Her mother, Christine Padgett, said Micaela’s experience in the military made her more determined.
“Micaela picked a hard career in the military, being a woman and working on plane engines. That’s a difficult, male-dominated field,” Padgett said. “She works super hard to achieve her goals, whether that’s in the military or at UNC.”
Pena was stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. After ending her service this past September, she decided to apply to local universities.
“I read an article off of the biomedical engineering program about the engineering of cartilage, and that kind of caught my eye of wanting to go here,” she said.
She is now majoring in biomedical engineering.
Pena, who transferred this year as a junior, said the transition from the military to UNC has been rough.
“It’s no longer about a job with set hours,” she said. “Here, you are constantly doing some kind of work all the time. It’s sort of an academic shock.”
She said the military and UNC teach differently.
“What you learn in the military is specialized for your job. We come in with no prior education, and they teach us and show us what we need to know,” she said. “At UNC, there’s an exploration. You come here to explore what things you will want to really get into.”
Kris Jordan, Pena’s computer science professor, said she’s been a hardworking student.
“I think there’s big value to the diversity that someone with world experience brings to the University,” he said.