Luis Gaitan ’10 CE is being recognized on the streets of Camden, New Jersey. He hears, “Oh, you’re the guy from the paper.” The paper is the Philadelphia Inquirer. What he’s not sure of is which story they’re referring to, because Gaitan has been featured twice in the past year. That’s what happens when you’re making a positive impact on the next generation in a place like Camden, which, like many cities, is in desperate need of role models for its youth.
Serving as an inspiration isn’t a “big idea” per se, but it’s a goal that few aspire to and even fewer achieve. Less than a decade after graduating from Villanova with a degree in civil engineering, Gaitan already has left an indelible impression on his hometown, resulting in media attention and a new children’s book based on his life. In November 2017, the Inquirer published “Inspiring: Why these Camden youths trained for the Philly Half Marathon,” which chronicles Gaitan’s mentorship program called “I Run This City: Camden, NJ.” In a May 2018 piece, “A Camden kid lived the story, and a Philly author wrote the book,” Gaitan and children’s fiction writer Martha Freeman are interviewed about her new book Zap!, which is based on his childhood. The Inquirer quotes him as saying, “I thought it would be wonderful for a brown kid in Camden to read a story about a fellow brown person.”
Gaitan’s adulthood is also worthy of a story. After earning his bachelor’s degree from Villanova in 2010 and a master’s from Rowan University in 2011, he made the unusual decision to enter the Navy, which took him to Afghanistan. When asked why he felt compelled to serve, he explains, “My parents came to the United States as undocumented immigrants from Nicaragua. America was the ‘land of opportunity’ and that’s exactly what it provided for me. I felt a responsibility to give back to the country that was so good to us.”
It was during his time overseas that Gaitan had an epiphany that prompted his return to his hometown. “In 2013, Rolling Stone wrote a scathing piece about Camden, and I was very angry. I questioned why I was thousands of miles away trying to solve another country’s problems, when there were countless problems at home that I could contribute solutions to.”
Gaitan saw in Camden’s youth the opportunity to make change. “Coming from humble beginnings, I didn’t know much of the world outside my neighborhood,” he says. “I want these kids to be more aware of their options than I was.” “I Run This City,” which he modeled after “Students Run Philly Style,” allows him to spend time with those from a background similar to his own and to mentor them. “It serves as a physical and social outlet for them, and I’m kind of a big brother they can talk to—in Spanish, if need be—about school, family and social issues.” He’s pleased that the 12-to-18-year-olds are open with him and he finds his reward in “seeing how they grow from day-to-day and week-to-week, and knowing where they are headed after graduation.”
Gaitan’s interest in building connections extends to his career as a transportation engineer for HNTB Corp. “I think too many engineers overlook the social engineering that’s involved in our daily work,” he says. “As a civil engineer, I’m not just building a bridge or a highway. Our work can literally connect—or disconnect—individuals and communities and we need to be more conscientious of the impact we can have.”
While he plans to continue his successful engineering career, Gaitan can see himself having an even greater impact on Camden by serving in public office, where he says there are not enough STEM-minded people. To that end, he’s making a run for city council in June 2019.
Regardless of the outcome, Gaitain’s commitment to family and community will anchor him. He advises, “Never forget where you came from and always let it guide where you’re going.”