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Staff Stories: Carlos Ribellia

A Navy veteran's journey to Cornell

Cornell’s laboratories and classrooms are full of complex technology and state-of-the-art equipment; keeping these facilities running smoothly is crucial to the university’s missions of research and instruction.

As an HVAC Controls Technician Journey Person at Cornell, Carlos Ribellia troubleshoots, repairs and monitors heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment for facilities campus-wide.  

“I like the detective work,” Ribellia said. “One day, I could be working on something really simple, a quick fix that takes thirty minutes, and the next day, it could be another issue that is completely different and has cascaded into a big problem.

There’s something new every day, and I never get bored or complacent.

Growing up on the island of Oahu, Ribellia and his four brothers were raised by a single mother who worked two jobs to support her family. As a child, he spent time in foster care while his mother battled for custody.

“I didn’t grow up with a lot,” Ribellia said. “We were on government assistance, and those were some hard times. But I learned to appreciate what I did have. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for locals to have sustainable careers outside of retail or tourism. So, when the opportunity came after high school, I joined the military to get my foot into the workforce.”

Ribellia enlisted in the Navy to afford his education and became the first person in his family to attend college.

While on active duty, Ribellia juggled his academics alongside field exercises. He took advantage of classes offered online and in person at the military base. Whether it was late at night or during his lunch breaks, Ribellia persisted through coursework while balancing the demands of military life. He pursued an Associate of Arts in General Studies, which allowed him to finish his Bachelor of Science in Mathematics (Operations Research) shortly after he got out.

“The primary reason why I wanted to further my education was because of my mother, who went back to school for nursing while I started my career in the Navy,” Ribellia said. “I remember her pushing through her studies every day and night, and, on top of that, she had two part-time jobs. That makes me very proud. And if she could do it, I knew I could do it and make her proud as well.”

Ribellia’s mother passed away from pancreatic cancer before he was able to finish his bachelor’s degree, but he attributes much of his academic success to his mother’s strength and motivation.

“She worked so hard to try to give us a better life. Continuing my education so I could give my family more opportunities while also finding a fulfilling career is something she would have wanted,” Ribellia said.

While deployed, Ribellia was recognized for his relief efforts in Sri Lanka after the Indonesia Tsunami (2004) and in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina (2005). He received two humanitarian service medals for his work to help restore schools and residential areas. In 2013, after eight years of service in the Navy and after finishing his enlistment in Okinawa, Japan, Ribellia arrived at Cornell.

He was first hired at the university as a second-year electrical apprentice, working on HVAC building automation systems. Ribellia tapped into Cornell’s academic benefits for employees and has been inspired to continue his journey in higher education and a new career.

Ribellia’s passion for helping people during times of crisis lead him to a Master of Industrial and Labor Relations program at Cornell, where he hopes to pursue a career in human resources. The motivation for this career jump stemmed from another member of his family – this time, his daughter.

“My daughter is very high on the spectrum for autism,” Ribellia said. “I had a hard time juggling her needs and appointments, and human resources at Cornell really helped me by providing exactly what I needed to care for her. They were supportive and made sure that I understood my rights and the benefits that were available as an employee. It really motivated me to want to be in an HR role.”

Ribellia believes that people are the greatest asset to any organization and can think of no better way to support employees than by helping them get the tools they need to succeed and grow. With hopes of one day working with the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, Ribellia is grateful to have the chance to continue his education despite navigating uncertainties throughout his life.

Every hardship thrown my way has shaped me into a resilient and compassionate person,” Ribellia said. “My experiences made me want to find the sense of security I did not have as a child. The most rewarding thing for me is that the obstacles I’ve faced in my life have paid off, and now, I not only work at Cornell but get to take courses here too. It’s been a surreal experience.”

Grace DePaull is a writer for the Division of Human Resources.

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