Balsells Fellowship Honors Former Catalonian Leader

Dean Gregory Washington greets the guest of honor, former Catalonian president Artur Mas at the Balsells eventAug. 7, 2017 - Engineer Pete Balsells is the true embodiment of paying it forward. The founder of Bal Seal Engineering Corp. in Foothill Ranch, Calif., he was born in Catalonia, Spain, growing up in a family that struggled financially. Through the largesse of a relative, Balsells came to the U.S. to study mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1952. Several years later, Balsells established Bal Seal in the garage of his home; today the company has more than 500 employees worldwide, manufacturing and selling parts to medical, automotive, aerospace and other industrial customers.

For the past 21 years, the prosperous engineer has been giving back through his Peter J. Balsells Foundation by helping to bring bright, young Catalonian engineering students to the U.S. to experience an opportunity similar to the one that changed his life.

In 1996, Balsells endowed the Balsells-Generalitat Fellowship program at UC Irvine. In the ensuring years, nearly 200 of Catalonia’s most talented students have come to UCI to pursue graduate studies and conduct engineering research at the Samueli School.

Last week, Balsells, at 89 still spry and enthusiastic, was in attendance as the Balsells Fellowship program honored former Catalonian president Artur Mas at a luncheon event at the CALIT2 Building. Mas, the 129th president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, and his wife, Helena Rakosnik, viewed students’ project posters, chatted with the young researchers, listened to an overview of the fellowship program and enjoyed a musical medley of Catalonian songs.

“We invited him to come because we really wanted him to see what’s happening in this program,” said Balsells. “So we’re very happy that we were able to bring him here.”

Samueli School professor Roger Rangel has served as director of the Balsells Fellowship and California-Catalonia program since its inception. He presented a historical overview of the program, which is equally funded by the Balsells Foundation, the Generalitat de Catalunya and UCI.  Rangel, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, told the audience that the program’s first student, Sergio de Miguel, today is chief engineer and co-owner of Gometrics, an instrumentation and calibration firm in Barcelona.

“We have about 37 fellows here this year, and they are all the best and the brightest,” Rangel added. “It’s a very competitive program.”

 Andres Adam Alberdi, a mechanical engineering master’s student and one of this year’s fellows, is grateful for the financial support. “This is a very good opportunity for me to study what I want in a good university without worrying about all the economic [issues],” he said. “I feel part of a community here; all of us as fellows tend to unite, be together and help each other.”

Alba Bosch Font, a graduate student in chemical engineering, agreed with Alberdi. “I think this fellowship provides a great opportunity to be able to study abroad in a good university,” she said. “I’ve been very lucky to work with nuclear reactions in physics and I think this is something not every university can afford to have. It’s been very enriching for me.”

For Susanna Anacleto and her husband, Sergio Gago, the fellowships were the difference between staying in Spain and studying in the U.S. “It was crucial to get the fellowship; if I hadn’t gotten it, probably we wouldn’t be here now. It has opened so many opportunities for us,” said Anacleto, a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering.

The program has expanded several times during its 21 years. Approximately 20 students arrive each year now, up from two per year in the beginning. In 1999, the Balsells Fellowship added a postdoctoral opportunity, and in 2012, the mobility program, which brings undergraduates to UCI for half a year to complete a research project. Since 1996, 124 graduate fellows, 13 postdocs and 54 mobility students have participated at UCI (there are similar programs at the University of Colorado, at the Boulder and Colorado Springs campuses).

Of the graduate fellows, 43 percent have returned to Catalonia, with the rest working elsewhere in Europe, the U.S. and Asia. Twenty-two former fellows are working in California, with six employed at Bal Seal.

Pete Balsells is more than pleased with what his efforts have accomplished, and he’s quick to share the praise. “The cooperation of Professor Roger Rangel is key to the success of this program. He’s the one who has made it possible and doable the first 10 or 15 years. The beginning is always difficult but he has been great at supporting us,” Balsells said.

“The program is growing,” he added. “I hope it lasts another 50 years.”

-Anna Lynn Spitzer