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Bill Maddock, Director of Subsea Systems Institute

Student Spotlight - Nicolas Xiong

By Valeria Dominguez

Nicolas Xiong is not your average teenager.

While most 17-year-olds are consumed with angst and excitement as they navigate the complex college application process, Xiong is already five months removed from receiving his diploma—not from high school, but from the University of Houston.

The mechanical engineering student graduated from UH in December of 2017 at only 17 years old. Now, at 18, he is working full time at Williams, one of North America’s largest natural gas companies. We caught up with Xiong to learn about his journey.


How did you move through the traditional education system so quickly?

When I was 7 years old my family moved to Texas. My parents didn’t like our zoned public school and decided to home school me. In about two years I went from a 5th to 9th grade level. I learned year-round at my own pace, without summer break or extracurriculars. My mom wanted to see how fast I could go through TAKS tests. At 10, I took high school classes online and enrolled in dual credit at community college.

By the time I was 7 or 8, I was involved in robotics. My mom was trying to find resources for me and through Yahoo groups found a robotics club. A teacher at Cypress Springs High School was in charge of the team. After my second year, everyone in the club was graduating, so I got voted team captain.


How did you manage to work with high schoolers who were 7 years older than you?

My parents have been very encouraging. The teacher at the robotics club became my mentor. He would say if you want to earn the respect of people you’re working with, you have to act a certain way. I matured quickly. I attribute my leadership skills to my time with the robotics team. My mentor would say, he knows what he is doing so let him do his thing.


When did you finish high school?

I finished high school in 2013, when I was 13. I did robotics from 8 to 13 and then didn’t have motivation. I was burnt out. I had barely started applying to college. At the robotics competitions I attended, a UH group called PROMES (Program for Mastery in Engineering Studies), did outreach.  I’m grateful for the faculty that I met and got to know. They even wrote letters of recommendation for all schools I applied to. I decided to stay in Houston, I liked the vibe that I was getting from everyone.


How did you handle going to the University of Houston at 13 years old?

It was really rough the first year. I failed two classes. The transition to university, I underestimated it. I wasn’t ready for the workload and the type of learning. I was used to understanding things right away and not putting in as much effort as I needed to.


What was the social aspect of the college experience like for you?

A lot of people asked, “Whose little brother is this?” It was funny at first. When I was doing poorly, I would study on my own or sit in classes by myself. That’s why now I tell freshman, you need to be involved, and there’s people who want to help you. Towards the end of my first year, I became good friends with one of the TAs in my Intro to Engineering class. He would always remind me to study better.


How were you involved at UH?

I became involved in PROMES, the outreach group that first exposed me to UH. At the time my grades were really bad, but after being an officer and getting to know people, I was encouraged. At the end of my sophomore year I ended up with a 4.0 semester GPA taking 18 hours. It was the motivation I needed. I was also involved with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. I became a teaching assistant when I was 14. It was hard explaining to my parents why I was doing so poorly at first but I realized sometimes it happens and you just have to work on it. At UH, I found people who pushed me to work harder.


Now, you work for Williams, one of North America’s largest natural gas companies. How did you gain the internship that led to a full-time job?

I found my internship through a career fair. I worked at the Williams Tower in the Galleria. I was in a rotating equipment group, so I did a lot of meaningful work such as vibration analysis on pumps and compressors.  I was troubleshooting in-field problems for compressors and root cause analysis for broken parts. I realized I enjoy talking to people and shaking hands more than being stuck on the engineer floor.

I had a second summer internship with Williams before graduating and switched to a project management group. I got to travel a lot, go to New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia for projects. Towards the middle of that summer, they assigned me as the Intern Project Manager for a pipeline in New York.


What are you currently working on?

I’m in the same group I interned with last summer at Williams. The only difference now is I work on projects in Louisiana and the South Texas area. Right now, my role is a Project Engineer. I’m not in charge, but I’m working on a pipeline expansion project in South Texas. I make sure that engineers get stuff to our construction team on time.


How do you stay motivated?

It was the organizations motivated me and wanting to be a student leader. When I got my first internship I wanted to do better, especially because my parents are first-generation immigrants. They moved here from Laos. I’m the oldest out of all my siblings. Before I wanted to do better for myself, now I want to do better because of the standard my family gave me. It took me a long time to realize that.


What is your dream job?

What I really want to do now as a professional is give back to the school. I’m a PROMES Advisory Board Member and an alumni sponsor for SHPE. They gave me scholarships and even sponsored me to travel to conferences while I was in school. With that in mind, I want to give back. I also want get my MBA and continue work as a Project Manager, which Williams is very supportive of. It’s funny, I remember telling my dad when I was growing up that I never wanted to work in oil and gas. He was always on the road a lot and working in the field. When I got my job offer, I remember he said, “I thought you don’t want to work in the field?” Ironically, I always travel and work in the field.