Football has been a part of Aaron Castillo’s life since he was just 6 years old. But as he considered his future while preparing to become a first-generation college student, he didn’t want the game to be his sole focus.

“I wanted to come to a school where I would be a student first and also be able to play football,” he said.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Castillo excelled at both. He led the university’s football team to one of its all-time most successful seasons, and he will soon graduate with a degree in management from the Lally School of Management.

Growing up in Montebello, California, he learned firsthand the importance of perseverance and dedication. Castillo’s father worked diligently in the real estate industry to provide his children with the opportunities he didn’t have and the moral support they needed to pursue their dreams.

Castillo’s mother, a caregiver who regularly works overnight shifts to help pay for her children’s education, also motivated him. “She’s always the one to put others before herself,” he said. “That’s one of my inspirations to work hard, so I can give back to her one day.”

At Rensselaer, Castillo hit the ground running and never let up, sticking to a grueling schedule of early morning weight training sessions, classes, and evening football practices. In his final season, he served as football captain, leading the team to its second Liberty League title and helping it earn recognition as the Eastern College Athletic Conference’s (ECAC) Division III Team of the Year. He was also a brother of the Rensselaer fraternity Theta Chi.

“Time management is a skill I’ve grown to master,” he said. “My coach always told me that there’s 168 hours in a week, and you have to plan each and every one of those.”

He also made time for academic pursuits far away from the football field. During his junior year, Castillo was one of three students selected to spend his summer in China studying corporate social responsibility through a fellowship provided by the Harold S. Geneen Charitable Trust. While abroad, he continued his daily workouts in a small hotel gym.

“The Geneen fellowship was life-changing,” he said. “It developed my leadership skills in ways that a classroom could not.” While in China, Castillo did a case study about startups and established companies in the fintech industry in America. “It gave me an inside look at what financial problems Americans are facing and how the combination of banking knowledge and technological advancements is helping to solve those problems. I learned how new of an industry fintech is and its potential for growth and development.”

In his senior year, Castillo was recognized by Liberty League, ECAC, and the National Football Foundation for his ability to excel in both academics and athletics. In the fall, he plans to keep his momentum going, returning to Rensselaer to pursue a master’s degree in technology commercialization and entrepreneurship at the Lally School.