Bonnie Prado is an outlier in her town. Not only has she had the opportunity to pursue a Master's and a Doctorate degree in Aerospace Engineering, but she is now also bringing knowledge to her community.
She was born in Choco, a province in Western Colombia with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, unique ecosystems, and unexploited natural resources. Yet, 63% of its population living in poverty (National Administrative Department of Statistics, DANE - 2015). Her hometown, Quibdo, is the province’s capital city, a 100,000 inhabitant municipality described as "one of the gloomiest cities in the world," due to its extremely wet and cloudy tropical rainforest climate.
Ever since she was a child, Bonnie Prado has been fascinated with space and technology. Sci-fi movies and NASA milestones were her favorite topics as a kid, and becoming a space scientist was her dream. In a place and time where fantasizing about becoming an aerospace engineer was for most people a naïve hope, Bonnie made it happen.
Hard work, determination, and great mentors have played important roles in her successful path. She first moved from Quibdo to Bogota and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electronics Engineering from Universidad Javeriana. “I wanted to study Aerospace Engineering, but no universities in Colombia offered such a program, so I went for Electronics Engineering which did not exist in Choco,” she explains. After that, an opportunity to do an internship at the University of Texas in Austin led to a Master's degree in Aerospace Engineering, and now she is pursuing a PhD in Astrodynamics and Space Applications at Purdue. Her professional goal is to work in the aerospace field, working on real space mission applications and contributing to the advancement of science and technology.
Now that she is getting closer to achieving her dreams, she explains how helping others and following her life-time dream motivate her to work hard every day. “Pursuing a doctorate is a path full of ups and downs, so you always need to keep in mind why you are doing it. For me, I don’t see myself doing anything else, and Aerospace Engineering allows me to impact the world in a different way. No matter the industry or the field of study, it is always possible to help improve people’s lives,” she says. These are not empty words, as she has helped children with similar backgrounds to hers explore the types of opportunities that a future in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field can offer.
“I would tell Colombians achieving their goals overseas not to forget that there are people in Colombia who need us and are waiting for us. It is easy to grow accustomed to living in the United States, and to eventually become a stranger in your own country. Whatever our strength or our field is we should consider how to use it to make an impact so that the country keeps improving and other people have the opportunities we have had,” she concludes.
EDUCATION IN CHOCO
Even though there are certain career paths that can be pursued in Choco, there are many that still are not offered by the local universities. “If you want to be a physician, you need to move to another city,” says Bonnie. Students face a tough decision: move to a bigger city, or pursue a different path.
“People from Choco want to be successful. We are hard-workers and entrepreneurial-minded, it is part of our culture. If you like studying, then you do whatever you need to do to study, like moving out of the city, but the idea is always to come back and help others have the same opportunities,” she says. However, in a region where 63% of the population lives in poverty, not many students have the funds to pay for private college or the high grades to compete for a spot at a good public one. In addition to this, there is still elitism and racism in Colombia that people from smaller cities need to face. “They need to remember what their goal is and stay strong, so that these factors don’t affect them and they can pursue their dreams,” she says.
THE AFRO-LATINO EXPERIENCE
In 2014, Bonnie started the Afro-Latino Experience Organization (ALE), a not-for-profit initiative that brings STEM summer camps to middle school students from disadvantaged schools in her hometown.
ALE's first summer camp was in 2015, and Bonnie describes it as a great success. Every day from 10 am to 5 pm for one week, twenty-eight kids attended a program to learn about math, physics, agriculture, biology, and electronics. The initiative was supported by Purdue’s Latino Cultural Center (LCC) and the Colombia-Purdue Initiative (CPI); local entities like Instituto de Investigaciones Ambientales del Pacifico, la Personeria de Quibdo, and CODECHOCO; and an online crowdfunding campaign. Aurelio Curbelo from the Latino Cultural Center and Professor Morris Levy from the Department of Biological Sciences at Purdue, travelled to Choco to instruct the kids.
The next step is to find a group or entity able to continue and expand Bonnie’s efforts, so that the kids can attend annual STEM camps. “Even though the first camp was the result of many people’s efforts, preparing and raising funds for it was a time-consuming task that I will not be able to perform again until I finish my studies,” she says.
“My wish is that the summer camps are held annually and for that I need additional help,” she concludes.
You may contact Bonnie Prado at email@example.com
Bonnie Prado in Electronics class, teaching kids how resistor circuits work
Students and tutors participating of the 2015 summer camp. Additional help is needed to continue hosting them.