“For me, I find home, I find community in every corner of the world.”
Nathan Thomas is a first-generation Indian-American, born in Canada and raised in Ohio. His parents are academics from Kerala. He is the past president of the Rotary Midtown in Raleigh, NC and is currently the membership chair of the Rotary District 7710. As a high school student, he founded a non- profit organization that has focused on fixing computers and giving them to Ugandan school children. vhe following are highlights of our conversation with Nathan.
GS: Please tell us a bit about yourself as a first-generation Asian American.
NT: My family is from Kerala, Southern India: a very, educated part of India, with 99 % literacy. My father is a professor of religion and ethics. He’s ordained in the Anglican Church and is currently at a Presbyterian Church. My mother teaches English as a Second Language and GED classes.
My sister, brother & I were born in Toronto Ontario, Canada. We moved to America in 1999 when I was around seven.We moved from Toronto to a small town in Illinois- for a year and a half, then to Findlay, Ohio where I lived until I left home for college. I got my Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, graduated in 2015, and moved to Raleigh, NC shortly after. I have been working at Caterpillar in Clayton, NC for the past 2 years.
GS: Why did you choose North Carolina?
NT: I chose North Carolina because I wanted to continue building community. I have lived in Europe, in Arizona, and other parts of America. I wanted to experience moving to a new area, and this position opened. This is one of the best areas that you could be in the country. The business climate in Raleigh/ Triangle area has a lot of growth potential.
GS: What kind of work you do?
NT: My job is a mix between just a traditional engineering role and project management as a resident engineer. I work as liaison between Leoni Wiring Systems, German company, and Caterpillar here in NC where we support their products. We’re the first responders on site, handling everything from engineering to quality issues. If anything comes up, they call us, we’re the ones sent there. I’ve had a lot of exposure in just 2 years of working here.
GS: What groups are you involved in?
NT: I am very involved in Rotary. My commitment to Rotary started when I was 16 years old in Findlay, Ohio. I was a junior in high school and I wanted to do something to make a difference in the world. In 2009, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for young people from small cities in the midwest to become players on an international development level. I was thinking, “One day we’re going to college and we need to have good great stuff in our resumés so we can get to good schools.”
“… young people today have a sense of being global citizens and not wanting to wait until they retire to give back”.
GS: How did ‘AllWeAre’ start?
I reached out to different organizations in Africa. I saw a lot of need. I told them ‘Hey, I am a highschool student. I could do this, I could do that.”
The African Rural Schools Foundation located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania responded. The founder wrote me that they had projects in Kampala. I told her, “I don’t know what I can do, but I am passionate about fixing and building things. I like fixing computers. Maybe I could collect computers from people in my community, fix them and send them to this school in Africa.”
That was the start of ‘AllWeAre’. We started with a small computer project serving a boarding school in Kampala, Uganda.
Along the way I learned a lot about international development and myself. It’s not all the time that we find passion in normal things. Up to that time as a high school student, I did not have anything that I was so passionate about.
Luckily, I found great partners; The Rotary Club in Findlay, Ohio supported our projects. Rotary focuses on stewardship and sustainability in their projects. It’s impressive. As a young organization, we applied for grants with Rotary as an organization. ‘All We Are’, became aligned with the best practices of development work. We focused on sustainability, putting money into the local economy, hiring local workers.
GS: There are active Rotary Clubs here in NC as well. Which one did you join?
NT: It made sense to me to join Rotary in NC, to give back to the organization that did so much for me. I chose the Rotary Club of Raleigh Midtown, a group of young professionals who meet at hours convenient for me. A month after I joined, they had a need for a president and I offered my name as a potential candidate. It had only been two months since I’d relocated. I said, it may be too early to put my hat in the ring, but I would love to consider the opportunity. I was 23 years old and had been a Rotarian for a month. Later, I discovered that I had become perhaps the youngest chapter President in the history of Rotary. I became President last July 2016. I am now the district membership chair for District 7710.
GS: How has ‘AllWEAre’ benefitted from being connected to Rotary?
“Friends, Networks, Partnerships “
NT: As Rotary Midtown has grown, All We Are” has too. Last year we did a district grant for a solar project in 4 schools in Uganda serving a total of 2500 students and teachers. We have the support of nearly 25 % of our district. We’re going back this year with plans to electrify 8 schools in even more rural part of Uganda.
So, our focus is on building education infrastructure for schools in Africa. 50% of the overall population is under the age of 15. We do this with solar power, a women’s empowerment program for distributing female hygiene products in schools, and our newly launched clean water program.
GS: It’s said that Asians often do not get promoted or paid as much. Yours is obviously a unique story. What’s been your experience?
NT: I am still new (2 years) and in a learning position at my company. There are people in my company who have been there for 40 years; they have pensions. Long term employment in the same company is not a reality anymore for anyone.
It’s good and bad. Some young people are a little overzealous. If they don’t get what they want in X years, they go bounce to another company or they leave. I am not like that. I am more patient. If I am not given an opportunity after a reasonable amount of time, I would be looking for a job where I feel it’s a better match for me, where my skills are better represented.
I have it easy because I have an American name. On the phone, I sound American So, it’s easy not to complain. But I have navigated situations in MY life where i know I’m an outsider.
The travel aspect for me; I find home, I find community in every corner of the world. I love going to Uganda. For work, I travel to Mexico I love being there…But for some the only world they know is what’s in front of them. I can understand that.
I am aware that there are companies who hire Indians & Chinese engineers as H1B visa workers to come here at much less money than an American doing the same exact job. People come to this country with impressive resumés and have their degrees looked upon as not being on par with American education. I can understand what my parents went through when they came here in the 1990s.
“A Catalyst to Bring People Together”
GS: Do you have thoughts about improving the situation?
NT: The one thing I say is “create communities.” The trend away from institutions to individuals with shared passions. Empathy is important in everything we do. As a professional, I can prepare myself to be a better manager one day, and a better ally to people who come to our country.
GS: When was the last time you were in India?
NT: Just this Christmas, I spent 2 ½ weeks in India. It was a wonderful feeling to be in a mass of people just like me.
GS: Was there ever a time there when you said, “This is who I am?”
NT: For me, a defining moment- was when I was on the train. Walking in a market or sitting on a train in India, I feel the peace that I only find there. It’s an incredible feeling. I love going back to India.
GS: Were there other defining moments for you?
NT: Not so much for the cultural context, but when I first started with “allweare”, speaking in front of groups when I was 16 years old. I got to a point where I was comfortable speaking, but I also found a drive and a passion.
GS: How did you discover your passion?
NT: In 2009, I was good at math and science but I did not necessarily want to be a doctor or an engineer. I didn’t really have anything I was passionate about. I was just living a life that you typically live as a young person in America. But by diverting and opening this other channel, creating a relationship with people so different from me from the other side of the world, I found my calling. I hope someday to empower others so that after a project, they have a plaque in their school with their names on it: the Naititi Club in Uganda or our partners on the ground. Only their names would appear. “AllWeAre” would not be there.
GS: You’re Christian but you are also Indian…
NT: Yes, My parents are from Kerala, a part of India where a portion of the population is Christian. They speak Malayalam. I have not met many families from Kerala in America. So, when I see an Indian named John Jacob or a n Abraham Thomas, I know they are from where I am from. I can count on one hand the number of times I have met someone from Kerala here. (editor’s note: Praveen Nair, the husband of our first interview subject is Keralite. There is actually a Keralite community in the Triangle
GS: Do you have an Indian name?
NT: Nathan Thomas is my Indian name. Most people do not know that there has been a rich Christian history in India. In AD 54. St. Thomas came to Kerala (they’re sometimes called Syriac Christians). My sister is Susan Mary Thomas, my Mom- Anita Thomas, my brother Roshan Thomas…
GS: Between 2010 & 2016, about 72,000 Indians came to the USA through the H1B visa. According to the US Census Bureau, between 2000- 2005, there was a 30% increase of Asian Americans in North Carolina alone. What would you tell an Indian coming to work in NC?
NT: To anyone who is coming to NC, I would say that the opportunities I have been afforded through my parents’ sacrifices are ones that I would not have gotten, if my parents did not move from India to America.
Regardless of where you come from, your life will be hard, but if you work hard, your children will be indebted to you for doing that. It will completely change your lives. My sister is a financial manager in Boston. My brother just graduated from American University in DC. These opportunities we’ve had, just would not have been a reality in India.
GS: What would you say to immigrants in general?
NT: I want them to understand that what they are bringing in this country–you know the technical jobs– make America a better place and that they are a part of this country.
GS: Does your Christianity remain a central part of your life here?
- Absolutely! Yes, it’s a governing principle in my life. How I view the world and it’s something that sustains me… I now go to a Methodist Church. If you have told me years ago, Nathan, you’re going to North Carolina and you’re going to a Methodist Church, I would not have believed it. But that is kind of what happened.
- Thank you very much, Nathan. I hope to see you and Rotary friends at the Dragon Boat Festival September, 23 at Koka Booth Auditorium in Cary.
Interviewer: Gregoria Smith, PhD for Asian Focus NC