Tania Caldua ’23, ’24: How her culinary career sparked a future in engineering

“I had always kept in my heart my desire to get my engineering degree and find a way to make a larger positive impact on society, to help the people around me and to protect our planet. That’s why I came to SMU.” -Tania Caldua

Tania Caldua and her mother
Tania Caldua with her mother, Julia Caldua Antunez, near their home in Peru’s Huascaran National Park.

Senior Tania Caldua’s taste for engineering started in the kitchen. While pursuing a culinary career in some of the world’s finest restaurants, she relished opportunities to improve processes and devise efficiencies. Those experiences steered her toward management science.


“It seemed like the perfect option for me since it uses mathematically based models for planning and executing decision making,” Caldua said. “At SMU, the best part is that management science is in the engineering school, where classes have enabled me to further develop my analytical and problem-solving skills.”


Caldua grew up in Rivas, a community of about 500 in the Peruvian Andes, an upbringing she credits with nurturing “a respect for others and the environment.” She is the first person from her hometown to study in the United States. This May, Caldua graduated with Bachelor of Science degrees in both Management Science and Data Science, becoming the first person in her family to earn engineering degrees. And in what will be another family first, she is on track to complete an M.A. in Sustainability and Development in May 2024.


Just a few years ago, her life was heading in a different direction. A university education was out of Caldua’s reach immediately after high school. Instead, she worked as a travel agent to afford an education in culinary arts, a field she describes as “a bridge to the rest of the world.” After completing her culinary degree with honors in Peru, she won a scholarship to Mexico that became a launchpad for positions in several of the world’s top restaurants. Caldua eventually landed a job in the U.S., and after living in several cities, she came to Dallas.


Caldua arrived on the Hilltop as a transfer student after earning an Associate of Science in Business Administration and Management from Dallas College in 2020. She applauds a portfolio of University services for smoothing the transition.


“SMU does a great job of making you feel welcomed, valued and appreciated,” she said.

—Thinking grad school? Think SMU Lyle. Apply now through Nov. 15 for Spring 2024.

She also receives financial support at SMU – the North Texas Community College Scholarship, the Eva Easterwood Scholarship and the Murray Case Sells Scholarship – which she describes as “life changing.”


“These scholarships have helped me maximize my college experience,” she said.


From the beginning, Lyle’s tight-knit community stepped up for Caldua. For example, the Society of Women Engineers offers a peer mentor program that pairs new undergraduates with upper-level students. Her mentor, Elizabeth McPherson ’22, a double major in management science and human rights, not only helped her choose classes, but also served as a sounding board when Caldua needed another perspective.


Tania Caldua with fellow Society of Women Engineers students


Lyle academic advisors guided her strategy for tackling two undergraduate engineering degrees while also taking graduate-level classes.


“With their help, I’ve been able to stay on target without having to extend my graduation date,” she aids.


In Lyle’s renowned faculty, Caldua found mentors invested in her academic success and future career. They “ignited my love for data science; inspired me to develop a world view of sustainability while prioritizing a climate-smart, inclusive economic development applicable to any industry and any country; and instilled in me the importance of having a holistic view when approaching the most challenging problems in our society.”


Caldua put what she learned in the classroom to work in the real world after being selected to participate in the AT&T Data Science Scholars Program in summer 2022. The innovative collaboration between SMU’s data science program and the telecommunications giant “helped build my skills and boost my confidence,” she said.


As she prepared for her first engineering job, Caldua relied on the career preparation resources of SMU’s Hegi Family Career Development Center and the Lyle School’s Hart Center for Engineering Leadership.


“The staff were extremely helpful with everything from assisting with writing my resume, to helping me with mock interviews, to organizing career fairs for students where we were able to network with different employers,” Caldua said. “They helped me prepare for and receive my first job offer.”


This summer, Caldua started a full-time job as an industrial engineer in manufacturing at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth. She analyzes and designs sequence of operations and workflow to improve efficiencies; establishes methods for maximum utilization of production facilities and personnel; and conducts studies pertaining to cost control and reductions.


“Surely an engineering degree is not easy, and being a nontraditional student can make it even more challenging, but it’s totally worth it,” she said. “In the Lyle School I’ve found a community of caring, passionate people who share my desire to make the world a better place."


About the Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering 

SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, founded in 1925, is one of the oldest engineering schools in the Southwest. The school offers twelve undergraduate and 29 graduate programs, including master’s and doctoral degrees, in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Computer Science; Electrical and Computer Engineering; Mechanical Engineering and Operations Research and Engineering Management.


About SMU 

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, community and the world.