Alumni Interview: Cj Giovingo – Part 1June 17, 2021
During the month of June, Capitol Tech is celebrating Pride by sharing numerous blogs that highlight influential LGBTQ+ figures in the STEM industry. The people featured in these blogs were particularly inspiring to us because of their innovation, dedication to their field, and strength in the face of adversity and hate. Please enjoy this special edition featuring one of our own alum. Happy Pride Month!
Capitology blog sat down with Cj Giovingo to discuss their time at Capitol Tech, their career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the unexpected path they took to achieve both.
Cj is a systems engineer at JPL, where they have worked for the last seven years. They obtained their bachelor’s degree from Capitol Tech in 2014, majoring in astronautical engineering.
They are a leader in forwarding inclusivity in STEM and were named to Fast Company’s Queer 50 for 2021 list, which spotlights LGBTQ women and non-binary innovators in business and tech.
Part one focuses on how Cj ended up at Capitol Tech, what it’s like to be an LGBTQ+/trans role model, and finding your passion. Make sure to come back for part two!
Capitology Blog: Why did you choose Capitol Tech?
Cj: I had a non-traditional path back to school. This is the second time I went to college. I went to Louisiana State University but I did not complete my degree at that time. I dropped out and had a separate career doing political organizing.
I like to say systems engineering and political organizing have a lot in common because they’re about taking a lot of disparate functions and putting them all in one room to achieve one goal. But I missed my math brain. I was working for a solar company and that’s when I decided to go back to school.
First, I took as many community college classes as I could. Second, I knew I needed to go back for engineering. I was around 31/32 when I started at Capitol, so I was looking for a program that could plug me into the industry. I wanted a university that had access to people who were doing the work. I also needed a university that looked beyond the standard model.
A lot of higher ed institutions really punish you if you’ve taken a different path. For me, at the time, to have been able to get into a state university I would have had to go back to school for four years just to change my GPA from a decade ago. They weren’t looking at the current GPA from my community college courses.
When I talked to Capitol, they saw me as a whole person, which is exactly what I needed from an admission standpoint and a learning standpoint.
CB: What advice would you give to students pursuing a degree in AE?
Cj: Follow your passion. Follow what you’re interested in. I was told that you can’t be a system engineer right out of college, and that’s not true. That’s really what my calling was. Don’t be afraid to try a lot of different things, especially while you’re in school. Try to get internships, even if it’s not a full summer long, just so you can get your feet wet and see a lot of different sides of the business.
There’s such a diverse number of opportunities in the field that internships can help zero in on what you like to do. That doesn’t necessarily have to come from the aerospace field. We have a lot of people at JPL who did other things. I have a co-worker who was a Rockette. Part of that experience for her was that it helped her determine how she likes to work, which set her up for her career. It’s important to understand how you like to work.
CB: How does it feel to be an LGBTQ+/trans STEM role model?
Cj: I think visibility is incredibly important, so people know they’re not the only one out there. I’m also an introvert, so it’s a little tough. I didn’t see a lot of representation and I think about that a lot, especially trans representation – there’s also not a ton of queer representation, either. I had a lot of female-identified people help me along the way. Their example of “I made it so I’ll help someone behind me” really stuck with me. So even if I’m tired or a little uncomfortable, I push through. I’m not uncomfortable sharing my story it’s just I tend to me more inward. It’s just so incredibly important for visibility – the idea of “they did this so I can do that.” I took that example from women scientists. I try to pay that forward to the LGBT community.
I think queer people just need to know they can do anything, and I want them to know that as early and young as possible. Your world really can be limitless.
CB: What other ways do you support the LGBTQ+/trans community?
Cj: I’m on the board of an organization called Out for Undergrad, a national non-profit to help high-achieving LGBTQ+ students by putting on industry-specific conferences. The conferences are free to attend for students and focus on tech, marketing, engineering, and business. Workshops include introducing students to their field but also on belonging and vulnerability. The conferences end with a career fair.
CB: Anything else you’d like to share?
Cj: Don’t be afraid if your story doesn’t look like everybody else’s – your path doesn’t look like everybody else’s. I had created this whole narrative about myself about dropping out of college, that it meant I wasn’t very smart, there’s no way I could do what I wanted to do. I slowly re-discovered my confidence. I would have never thought I would be here.
Part of what helped me is a mentor telling me I need to learn how to tell my story. The problem isn’t that I took this crazy road, it’s that I hadn’t learned how to tell it and what I learned from it and the skills I learned that made me the person I am. Learning to tell your story is such an incredible asset. That is what will make you stand out to potential employers. We’re all going to take the same classes. What makes you, you and how you got here is an incredibly powerful asset to help you open doors. More than just value to an employer it’s important for you to know it’s okay.
Thank you to the Capitol community. I had a wonderful experience. My professors really helped me find my confidence and really encouraged my curiosity. I’m still in touch with several of them. I think it’s a wonderful community and I try to tell everybody I can this is where I went – you should know about this place.
You can learn more about Cj in their presentation from the 2016 Lesbians Who Tech summit.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview where we talk with Cj about their work on the Mars 2020 Mission.