Third-year industrial and Systems Engineering Major and Leader in Tech's Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Talks About What it is Like to be a Hispanic STEM Student
Oct 1, 2020 | Atlanta, GA
Jathan Caldwell is many things: third-year student in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), talented photographer and musician, Tower Gold Award recipient, social media content creator for the humanitarian organization World Relief, two-time summer intern at McKinsey & Company, entrepreneur, and vice president for external affairs for Georgia Tech’s Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (GT-SHPE).
It was in the context of that last detail that ISyE reached out to Caldwell, who enthusiastically agreed to share – among other topics – his thoughts on how his Ecuadorian family has shaped his personal values, what it’s like to be a Hispanic STEM student at the Institute, and the impact of GT-SHPE on his college experience. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
We are in a time where conversations around the experiences of people of color are being rightfully foregrounded. What thoughts have you had about this cultural moment?
Our nation has not only grappled with a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting minority communities, but we also have been repeatedly shocked by instances of police brutality that are just a glimpse of what the Black community in the U.S. regularly faces. The dire need for social action is inescapable.
Yet I look ahead, feeling both challenged and optimistic. More than ever before, people are awakening to these perpetual injustices – although the reluctance to make substantive change and “what about-isms” unfortunately has been quick to follow. I personally wish to work toward making this moment a catalyst for a focused movement that is built for the long-term. Our generation has a momentous calling to funnel innovation and conscience into needed social change.
Tell us about your background and family origin. How has being of Ecuadorian extraction impacted your life?
My parents met in the small town of Sucúa, Ecuador. My mother, a town resident, was a waitress, and my father was a Peace Corps volunteer from the U.S. Both struggled with jobs that paid less than minimum wage, and they moved to the U.S. with few financial resources and big dreams of being able to support their family. Raised traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Ecuador, I was deeply molded to value the integrity of community and the significance of culture; this truly informed the ambitions I have and the value I hold for serving others. I am thankful for a heritage that has inspired me to spark innovation for the underserved and to never lose sight of la familia’s profound importance.
What would you like the ISyE and larger Georgia Tech communities to know about being a Hispanic student at the Institute?
I am so grateful for the way our Institute not only values diversity and supports our Latinx/Hispanic community but also amplifies our voices and unlocks opportunities for us to advance with confidence through the Office of Hispanic Initiatives, the Office of Minority Education, and other core initiatives at Tech. There are certainly barriers and stereotypes that have posed challenges throughout my college journey. At the same time, I still face biased perceptions around my very presence in STEM and have been kept out of internships, organizations, and professional opportunities simply for not having a more traditional background and “fit.”
Fortunately, ISyE and the broader Tech community have forged a culture that embraces differences and truly sets the tone for leading with diversity. Now in my third year, I look back at having been selected for the pilot Freshman Diversity Leaders Internship with McKinsey & Company as a testament to Georgia Tech’s leadership on this front, as it was one of the few schools in the U.S. to be part of this launch propelling top diverse students.
When did you get involved in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and how has the organization contributed to your college experience?
I got involved with GT-SHPE my very first semester at Georgia Tech, and it has honestly been a transformative experience. I find GT-SHPE to be an organization that is unique in the different experiences it offers students, both professionally and socially. I have had a chance to be involved with everything from our Mini World Cup, singing for the Taste of Latin America (an event showcasing Hispanic culture for all students), being a PEP mentor, and – currently – serving as external vice president. GT-SHPE is a place where I have truly felt at home, with people who resonate with my background and connect on shared interests and passions.
As the second largest collegiate SHPE chapter in the U.S., we now have 340 members. Having raised about $40,000 just this semester to fund all programmatic activities, it has been immensely rewarding for me to lead our corporate relations and events, national convention, and professional experience program. This is a community I have been able to lean on and grow with, and in return, it is one I wish to propel further so each member can achieve their dreams.
Tell us more about PEP.
PEP stands for our Professional Experience Program. At its core, PEP is an opportunity for motivated students – PEPies – to be individually paired with older students – PEPos – who serve as mentors. This program is extremely actionable and provides a phenomenal outlet for students (particularly first-years) to transition into Georgia Tech with a gust of wind in their sails. As part of the program, students participate in everything from workshops on resume writing and personal brand building to learning how to navigate all aspects of their Georgia Tech journey. PEPies are encouraged and equipped to believe in their exciting potential as Hispanic students at Georgia Tech.
For me, it’s full-circle to have been a PEPo last year and now to be leading the program of 50 or so students. These one-on-one interactions that take place through the program are some of the most meaningful to me.
Anything final thoughts?
I believe that an integral part of the narrative of future innovation is being written by the ideas that receive venture capital backing, yet with funding only going to 9% women, 1% Black, and 2% Latinx founders, there is a glaring need to improve entrepreneurial diversity.
At the start of this school year, I connected with local VCs, entrepreneurs, and Institute program directors to share my idea for a Georgia Tech-based, student-run VC that would specifically support underrepresented minority student founders. I am currently in the process of building this fund, Futuro Ventures, with support from CREATE-X leadership. If you are a student, faculty member, or alum interested in learning more either about the funding or operating side, feel free to reach out to me!
Published by - Shelley Wunder-Smith
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering