Folkers Rojas — who was born in Nicaragua and raised in Miami — never heard of MIT until he was 17 and a teacher suggested he apply.

“I had money to apply to only two schools,” he says. “If I didn’t get in, I had enlisted in the Navy and was going to ship out six days after graduation.”

Now, the 23-year-old senior — who is pursuing a double major at MIT and plans one day to bring clean energy to people in developing countries — has participated in seven UROP projects, including designing a Torus satellite, upgrading a camera for the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, and developing green energy solutions.

“For me, learning has always been a hands-on experience,” says Rojas, who in high school worked odd jobs to buy a $500 Honda Accord, just so he could take it apart. “UROP has given me that real-world experience while I’m still an undergraduate. The big benefit is that in the lab, you’re not just cleaning beakers. You’re actually working on leading research.”

Rojas says a great aspect of UROP is that working on a team, you polish your communication skills. “If you’re working on amazing research but you close your door and become a hermit, it doesn’t really matter if you discover the cure for AIDS, you need the ability to communicate it to others. I’ve learned it’s so important to articulate the work you’re doing, to be able to tell people why it’s important.”

Learning-by-doing has been invaluable, he says. Last summer, Rojas got a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and his project was challenging, but familiar. “Right away, I said, ‘I can do that project. I’ve done a project like this before. I’ve done real-world applications where I’ve been the chief engineer and been responsible for setting a budget and getting the project done on time.’ The UROP experience has been such an asset.

“I always think how I’m here on earth for only a certain amount of time, and I will make the most of it. For me, making the most of it is working on leading technology that’s not only going to change the future but is going to change people’s lives. I’m only at MIT because other people invested time and energy to help me out. I’m so grateful to them, and the only thing for me to do is to return the favor by helping others.”