Senior Spotlight: From Firefighter to STEM Early College Grad
Caitlyn Smith likes wrecks. Really.
“I know that sounds bad,” she says, “but I like vehicle accidents because they’re never the same, and they happen every day – I have the statistics on that – and people get hurt and that is something I can help with by being a vehicle crash test engineer.”
A vehicle crash test engineer?
“The first reaction I get from anyone is, ‘You mean the dummy?’ and I tell them, ‘No, I won’t be the dummy,’” she says, laughing. “’I’ll keep the dummy alive.’”
And Caitlyn will.
The Seeds of A Career
She graduated Thursday from the STEM Early College at N.C. A&T and will set her sights on pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at A&T or a material science and engineering degree at N.C. State.
But wherever she goes, she will take with her what she learned during four years at the STEM Early College and her two years at the Whitsett Fire Department, Station 31, a quick drive from where she lives.
She is a volunteer firefighter. It was really her dad’s idea. He is a detention officer with the Guilford County Jail in downtown Greensboro, and he gave her the application the summer of her sophomore year.
Garland Michael Smith Jr. had already taught his youngest daughter how to fish, hunt, and work on cars. Caitlyn had been doing all that since she was 5 years old. But with this, her dad simply gave her the application.
Once Caitlyn got involved, she took off.
She hasn’t been to any fires – Whitsett is pretty rural, she says – but she has been to her share of car wrecks, and she has done everything from carrying a woman on a backboard to calming a frazzled Shih Tzu involved in a head-on collision.
That work prompted her to change her career choice from veterinarian to vehicle crash test engineer. She wants to be one of those engineers wearing a white coat and working to make every car on the road safer.
“It’s not what a normal person wants to do, but everyone I talk to is very supportive,” she says. “A lot of my friends don’t know what they want to do with their lives, but I do know what I want to do. STEM prepared me for life.”
STEM: The Challenging Path
STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and six years ago, Guilford County Schools created the STEM opportunity at A&T to prepare local students for a rapidly changing world.
Caitlyn has always liked math. She says it’s in her genes. Her older sister, Kirsten Smith, is a rising sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill studying biology; and her mom, Nicole Baize, teaches math at Eastern High and is finishing up her doctorate at A&T in industrial and systems engineering.
Caitlyn chose to go to STEM Early College and leave her home school of Eastern High because she wanted to be challenged. And she has been. She made her first B at STEM Early College at A&T, and that shook her a bit.
But her parents supported her, and as months turned into years, she has become a straight-A student and member of the school’s National Honor Society.
She tutors other students at STEM and helps a crew of classmates who teach engineering principles to second- and third-graders from Cone Elementary by using LEGOs to build things.
“If I had gone to Eastern, I wouldn’t have been introduced to engineering,” she says. “And I feel like the environment here has helped me grow and become more independent and dig deeper into what I’m interested in. That is something they preach to us in the classrooms.”
A Fateful Day
In and around Eastern High, Caitlyn goes by another name: KT.
She hasn’t really left – nor will she ever. Her parents live there, and she is still close to one of her best friends. They met in second grade at Gibsonville Elementary.
She has played goalie for the past four years for Eastern Guilford’s girl soccer team, and she lives close to Station 31, where she keeps her turnout gear and goes by at least once a week.
She still works car crashes. Last year, she become one of her own.
It was 6:30 a.m., the pre-dawn of a cold December morning. She had just turned 17 the day before. She left her mom’s house, with her compound bow and a sheath of arrows in her 2007 silver Ford Focus and drove to her dad’s house to hunt deer.
She didn’t make it.
She ran into a ladder attached to a trailer that didn’t have functioning tail lights and totaled her car. She called her mom upset. Her mom came over right away and told her it would be OK.
Caitlyn still smarts over what happened. But from her expertise, she knows the truth.
“It will happen to everyone,” she says, “eventually.”