Above: Sisters Manuella (left) and Joanna Kawata
An aerospace career was not on Joanna Kawata’s radar when she enrolled at Georgia State’s Perimeter College in 2020. She knew she loved working with technology, but she wasn’t sure how to parlay that interest into her studies.
And a career in helping special needs children was not on her sister’s Manuella’s mind when she transitioned to the Atlanta Campus from Perimeter to study biology.
What a difference two years can make.
Joanna will graduate in December with her associate of science degree in engineering and, this summer, she’ll intern with the aerospace and defense corporation, Northrop Grumman, in in Melbourne, Fla. Manuella will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in biology with a goal of continuing her education to become an occupational therapist.
For Joanna, it was the inspiration of Dunwoody astronomy and physics professor Dr. David Yenerall who encouraged her to attend the college’s Students’ Physics and Astronomy Conceptual Endeavor (SPACE) Club, that sparked her interest in aerospace. As a SPACE Club member, she immersed herself in all things cosmic.
“We have helped build and launch model rockets; we built a helium balloon and launched it; we’ve gone to different observatories to see the planets and stars. I just fell in love with it,” she said.
After graduating from Tucker High School, she came to Perimeter at the advice of her sister, Manuella, who attended the college before transferring to Georgia State’s Atlanta Campus.
Joanna sought out the Regents’ Engineering Pathway (REP) program but ran into a roadblock — she hadn’t taken calculus and couldn’t get in the program.
She buckled down, working with engineering and computer science professor Dr. Sahithya Reddivari, and peer mentors in the college’s Peach State Louis Stokes Mentoring program (PSLAMP) and the Dunwoody and Clarkston learning and tutoring centers. She passed calculus and successfully and enrolled in the REP program where she studied electrical engineering.
Her interest in electrical engineering and aerospace, and the fact she was a PSLAMP scholar, helped her nab the internship at Northrop Grumman where she’ll be working in the aeronautic systems division as an electrical engineering intern.
“We had a student presentation in LSAMP on underrepresented minorities in space and the aeronautic field — a lot of them started in electrical engineering and physics majors and became astronauts,” she said.
The internship starts her on that path.
“I would love to work for NASA, and yes, one day, I would be interested in becoming an astronaut,” Joanna said. “But for now, I want to help build the rockets.”
While Joanna looks forward to launching her career in aerospace, her sister also has her plan. Manuella’s time at Georgia State allowed her to pursue both her bachelor's degree and the prerequisites for a master’s in biomedical sciences. That journey led her to a new interest — occupational therapy.
“During my time on the downtown campus, I participated in an internship program at a school for special needs kids,” Manuella said. “This experience increased my appreciation for education and what I could do with it to help others through my field of study. My foundation in biology and achieving this degree gives me the confidence to pursue more even though it is a separate field.”
Story by Rebecca Rakoczy
Photo by Bill Roa