Alumni Spotlight: Sid Thatham
A seasoned UC alum shares his journey from starting a humble Facebook chat group to playing a part in creating the futuristic transportation system that will take you from Cincinnati to Chicago in 30 minutes.
Early Community Leadership
Sid Thatham has been an integral member of the UC community for nearly a decade. He moved from India to the United States in 2012 to attend graduate school at UC, where he pursued a degree in chemical engineering. Sid’s involvement on campus began when he started a Facebook group to connect incoming international students with each other. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m in a search for a bunch of answers and I’m pretty sure a bunch of other international students have the same questions, so we might as well get together in this group,’” he says. Being of service to his fellow international students in this capacity was the beginning of a long mission to help connect different community members with one another.
The Facebook group led Sid to seek new ways to get involved in UC’s community. He became a member of the Indian Students’ Association (ISA) – where he was elected to be president – and the International Partners and Leaders (IPALs) program. These roles, which Sid considers to be his first taste of proper involvement on campus, gave him new insight on the greater population of international students; Sid gained a platform to voice their collective needs.
Sid’s main purpose was to pinpoint issues that many students were facing and then to advocate for them. For example, many international students did not have access to vehicles, which was a substantial barrier keeping them from getting to the airport to fly home over breaks. To help rectify this, Sid partnered with members of the undergraduate student government to cofound AirportRide, a service which provides students with free shuttling to the airport during busy travel times, such as during finals week. Doing so allowed Sid to further the work he started with the Facebook group on a real-world basis; international students were more connected to their homes and their campus because of the work he initiated.
Sid’s main takeaway from his early work advocating for these groups was that “this is not just about Indian students, this is not just about international students, this is about the student body as a whole.” While there are some fundamental differences in the experiences had by international students compared to domestic students, everyone is subject to similar conditions when coming to a college campus: being away from home, making new friends, living on your own.
Realizing this, Sid desired to find a way expand his reach beyond the ISA and IPALs. This led him to seek out a position in graduate student government. The GSGA is the governing body that represents all students at the graduate level. Sid served as the GSGA’s Vice President for two years. He says, “It was an experience like none other to say the least. It gave me a chance to understand student problems from a different perspective at a higher level.”
One accomplishment that Sid is especially proud of is being able to obtain graduate and professional students their own presidental award recognizing their achievements. The Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence existed for undergraduates, but there was no equivalent honor being given to graduate students. After four years of advocating for this, as well as "countless meetings and knocking on doors", Sid was able to get graduate students eligibility to become a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence in 2017. Sid was a recipient that same year.
Sid’s eager engagement and willingness to put himself in unfamiliar environments allowed him to expand his reach from a humble Facebook group-chat up to one of the highest student leadership positions on campus, an upward trajectory that occurred all in the course of a few years. “If you want to be able to make changes, you need to be in the rooms where those conversations are happening,” he says, quoting a TED talk that he witnessed on campus. Being on the executive board of the GSGA allowed him to be in those rooms, secure a seat at the table, and participate in the conversation that was being had amongst campus administration.
Spreading Ideas through Passion Projects
Sid’s involvement on campus was not limited to community advocacy and outreach; he had two substantial passion-projects that ate up whatever time he had left outside of his work in student life: TED talks and Hyperloop.
TED is a nonprofit group that is devoted to spreading thought-provoking ideas through the form of short, concentrated presentations (or “talks” as TED labels them). Sid’s involvement with TED began after meeting someone who worked for the organization at a retreat for a campus club that they had in common. After making that connection, Sid was asked if he would be interested in volunteering for the organization; he responded by exclaiming, “Sign me up, no questions asked, I’m on board!” Sid worked behind the scenes of TEDxCincinnati, helping to set up the event and make sure presenters had everything they needed to be successful. “While that was happening at the city level, two of my friends on campus were putting together TEDxUCincinnati. One of my professors was going to be an advisor for the event. I reached out and said I wanted to get involved, as TED was something that I was passionate about,” he says, expecting to just continue his role as a volunteer, only now on UC’s campus. One thing led to another and the president of TEDxCincinnati, knowing the work he had been putting into his other project, Hyperloop, asked Sid, “‘How would you like to do a talk?’”
“How will you use Hyperloop?” This is the question Sid poses to the audience at the conclusion of his TEDxCincinnati speech. When posed the same question, Sid lights up as if this is the question he has been waiting to answer for years. “I would travel as much as possible.”
Hyperloop is a futuristic transportation system that is currently in the development stage. The brainchild of mogul-entrepreneur Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, Hyperloop is projected to eventually exceed the speed of airplanes, but in the form of above- and below-ground tube systems that carry large pods, which resemble futuristic train systems. Sid’s involvement with Hyperloop came in the form of working on UC’s development team, Hyperloop UC. Sid became involved with the team while he was pursuing his second master’s degree – an MBA in business administration – and his role was to oversee their $210,000 budget and marketing strategies.
Hyperloop UC has been a participant in SpaceX’s annual Hyperloop Pod Competition each year and, due to the success and sophistication of their design, made it to the final round of the 2017 competition – only 30 out of over 1,200 teams made the cut – and traveled to SpaceX’s headquarters to present their pod to Elon Musk. While Sid was there, he had the opportunity to ask Elon for a selfie. Between laughs, Sid says that Elon responded by saying, “‘Dude, not happening. If I say yes to you, I’ll be here until 4 a.m. taking selfies with everybody.’”
Reflecting on the Journey
Sid remembers his Hyperloop days with mixed feelings. It was two years of working 80+ hours a week on Hyperloop, in addition to all of his student life endeavors, TED, multiple master’s degrees, and also working part-time to help fund school. “Those were both good and bad times. Bad because you couldn’t get proper sleep. No cooked food. Cooked food was a luxury at that time. My office was home sweet home for the longest time. I would sleep under my desk,” he says. Sid’s tone shifts to clear-headed optimism, saying, “but, it was good because it forced me to push myself and evolve as an individual. I had no idea that I had all that in me. That’s the whole point of studying in the U.S.: what are you doing to push yourself? I’m glad that I lived that whole lifestyle, because I had no idea I could do so much.”
Sid has left those grueling days behind him now that he has concluded his formal education. In addition to working as an energy engineer for UC and teaching as an adjunct professor for classes he once loved as a student, Sid has hobbies now. He likes to travel, now that he has time, and take pictures.
His ongoing photo project is to visit the locations of memorable scenes from his favorite movies and take a picture of himself there (areas he has visited include ones from “The Dark Knight Rises”, "8 Mile", “The Fast and the Furious” and more). It is his hope that Hyperloop – which he sees as being a reality within the next 15-20 years – will make traveling to these locations a much more frequent affair.
Sid still maintains his involvement at UC, but now it is as an educator. He forged his own path through the work he did here as a student, and he still has a passion for connecting students to each other and with helping them realize their own potential as well.
Written by Chris Pasion, graduate assistant of The Graduate School.