A summer experience takes flight

For Juan Catano, the road to success has been a difficult one–but now the young engineer is ready to take off.

The memory is so fresh Juan can smell the sun-splashed grass.

He’s young. Maybe six or seven. His father is by his side. The two are standing at the outskirts of a field just outside of Medillin, Colombia. Overhead, radio control planes dart through the sky, buzzing like wasps, piloted by the wealthy of the city. That was about when Juan fell in love with airplanes.

He fell in love with engineering not long after, when his father walked into their tiny apartment one night with a damaged motor from an RC plane. Juan had no idea where he got it; even a piece of machinery like this, which didn’t work, would have been beyond the budget of their family’s meager earnings. That night, he and his father huddled together on the balcony and took apart the engine, combing through its innards, peering into its mechanical mysteries.

That night and those days on the mini-airfield would set Juan Catano, now 21, on a path that would lead him to the present, when he will soon graduate from Daniel Webster College with a degree in aeronautical engineering.

The journey, however, wasn’t without its turbulence. Juan’s father, a smoker since the age of eight, succumbed to lung cancer after a year-long battle, which saw him decay to the point where he needed help with the most basic of needs. It was a prolonged and devastating loss for Juan, who was just nine years old at the time. The last words he remembers from his father: “Always take care of your mother..”

Not long after, he and his mother moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, into what he sort-of-lovingly describes as “a hole in the wall.” This tiny apartment represented an oasis during his school years, a much-needed respite from a frustrating, lonely world of an almost total lack of communication. The language barrier was so impenetrable that his middle and high school years turned into nightmares of isolation.

“I would just be thinking ‘I know how to do this and I know the right answer, but I can’t share it with you,’” he recalls. “They’re trying to understand you but you just can’t get the message across.”

As a freshman, Juan made the decision to leave his ESL classes and launch himself into the deep end, enrolling in honors courses. It was incredibly difficult, but the unwavering high standards (the teachers refused to “teach down” to him) forced Juan to adapt and improve.

In between hitting the books and grappling with English, Juan was working on a farm. Prompted by a school friend, Juan connected with the United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) in Lowell, a United Way partner agency that specializes in youth leadership skill-building. He spent his after-school time at UTEC and eventually signed on for one of their unique summer experiences as part of a crew of kids who spent the day working on a nearby farm.

“I had no idea about the farming environment,” he says, laughing. “But I learned how to harvest something, sell products at the farmer’s market, talk to people and communicate and be a leader.”

These skills would come into play in a big way as he began his college experience. His engineering track meant he was working on complex projects as a team; instead of hawking eggplants and tomatoes, Juan was constructing battery-powered, radio-control quadcopters from scratch.

Two years ago, Juan bought his first RC plane, a big slow, red, foam Cessna. The days when he is in his own field, piloting his own aircraft, the moment is not lost to him: about to graduate with a degree in aeronautical engineering, ready to get a job that will provide a better life for him and his mother, there will always be those summer afternoons in Colombia with his dad, those longing gazes at the rich men flying their toys, the promise of a better life.

Juan Catano is now poised to fulfill that promise, and it brings to mind the first thought he had when he sent that red Cessna into the sky for her maiden run:

“I wish dad was here, so he could fly with me.”