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Thursday, December 7, 2023

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Amanda Thomas (’96) and Jamilla Thomas (right) Amanda Thomas (’96) and Jamilla Thomas (right)

Two Students, One Mentor, 25 Years Apart

Engineering senior Jamilla Thomas follows in her mother and older sister’s footsteps at SDSU.
By Delaney Weidner

As a Black woman in engineering at San Diego State University, graduating senior Jamilla Thomas is following a career path blazed by her own mother, Amanda Thomas (’96), who earned a degree from SDSU 25 years earlier.

When she starts working full-time at Rockwell Automation this July, she will build on stepping stones to success laid down by her mother. Amanda works on Mars rover projects at Peraton, a contractor for NASA's Goldstone Deep Space Network. 
For mother and daughter alike, pursuing degrees in engineering brought access to a field where Black women remain woefully underrepresented. And as it turns out, both prospered at the College of Engineering under the same mentor, Theresa Garcia.

Garcia played a significant role in both students’ lives and in their success, first as a young faculty member and now as assistant dean for student affairs. 

“I don’t know what I would do without her,” Jamilla said. “I know I can always walk into her office, no appointments needed, she has an open door."

Her mother concurred. “The camaraderie, the networking, it was unbelievable,” she said. “She led the Minority Engineering Program so she helped me with my transition, job placement on campus - everything she does for my daughter now, she did for me then.”

Garcia feels strong empathy for her students, having been the first in her family to attend college, so she built a strong rapport with the Thomas women. Her office is always open for students to come in and “just collect their thoughts, take time to gather themselves together and seek the comfort and encouragement they need,” she said.

“The daughters have their mom to support them, although they still have their own struggles to carve their niche.  But in the 1990s, it was very important to support Amanda, a young Black woman in a male dominated field,” Garcia said.

“There’s a different nuance when you have a parent who has gone to college and has a career. My role is to help them forge their own path, because it’s very important for young women to find their place in this field,” Garcia added. “The need for connection, a sense of belonging, is really important. Helping them reach their full potential has been very rewarding.”

Jamilla Thomas: Finding A Community

Jamilla initially didn’t want to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She applied to SDSU at her mother’s request, however, and thinks it’s the best decision she made. The computer engineering major also follows older sister Aquilla ('19), who graduated with a triple major in psychology, communication and women’s studies.

Jamilla joined the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) her freshman year and is now the SDSU chapter president. “NSBE is very tight knit, we act as sounding boards for each other. I invited my mom to be a guest speaker at our annual Engineers Giving Opportunities event."

Last fall, Jamilla received a job offer from Rockwell Automation. At a regional NSBE conference, Rockwell was one of the first companies she spoke to, interviewed with, got a summer internship in 2019, and a remote internship in summer 2020, and now a full-time job offer. 

Amanda Thomas: Dreams of NASA

Amanda’s journey to SDSU for aerospace engineering and a career at NASA began as a young girl growing up in the Caribbean island of Grenada.

When she was 15 years old, Amanda migrated to the U.S., accompanied by her family, and settled in Pasadena, Calif. Her father made a living as a gardener, and by working in the facilities maintenance department at California Institute of Technology which is close to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

“I was a little girl with a big dream back on the tiny island,” Amanda said. “The Challenger explosion happened when I was 11. We had one TV in the neighborhood and lots of people came to watch it with us. It was traumatic to watch that explosion. But that made me realize I want to be part of something big.”

Amanda chose to attend SDSU, and through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) she received much needed support and encouragement to stay the course. The EOP hosts a BEST (Building Essential Skills and Talent) summer BRIDGE program for select incoming freshmen, to help them get a head start on their college education. 

With Garcia’s encouragement, she joined the NSBE, the organization that later also played a crucial role in helping her daughter find community at SDSU and in engineering.

"I remember the first day of the Summer Bridge Program, there was a meeting with families. We were told to look around and observe everyone because in four years only one in four of us will remain. I was stunned, that was a high dropout rate,” said Amanda.  But there were only a handful of us that stuck it out. I survived with the help of Theresa, NSBE and EOP.”

The sense of belonging she developed at SDSU has stayed with her throughout her career. At Peraton, Amanda works on the Mars Curiosity project and is currently with the Perseverance and Ingenuity helicopter projects, tracking the rover from when it leaves the ground through the end of its life.

With a fitting astronomical reference, she said she’s “over the moon with joy” for her daughter’s success. 

“She is so confident, she guides people, she proves herself,” Amanda said. “Because of this interview through NSBE, she now has a solid job which speaks to her drive, work ethic and ambition.”