James LoCascio’s father, an immigrant from Sicily, worked three jobs to support his family in New York City – two in upholstery shops and one driving a taxi.
“When he retired from upholstery, he drove cabs full time until he had a stroke when he was 80 years old,” LoCascio said.
Despite his lifetime of work, the elder LoCascio always wanted a better life for his children, telling his son and daughter they would eventually go to college so they would not have to work as hard as he did.
“My background has always made me aware of what it means to be a first-generation mechanical engineering student,” LoCascio said. “This has helped me bond especially with my first generation Hispanic students. It always amazes me, the change in attitude when my first-generation students realize I was also a first-generation student.”
LoCascio’s impact on students was just part of the reason he was recently honored with the CSU Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award (FILA). The award, presented to one person for every CSU campus, acknowledges CSU faculty who have demonstrated leadership at the program, department, school, college or university level to improve student success and outcomes in courses with traditionally low success rates or persistent equity gaps.
The award comes with $5,000 in cash for the winner and $10,000 for departments.
LoCascio’s impact through the years is well known.
“As I meet with engineering alumni, so many of them tell me that their classes with Prof. LoCasio had a profound impact on their lives,” said College of Engineering Dean Amy S. Fleischer. “He has a lasting legacy through his students.”
When LoCascio started his Cal Poly career in 1981, then-Gov. Jerry Brown advocated for minimal state government, saying public employees were partly compensated by “psychic income” – or the fulfillment you get from the job.
“For years, I would joke with my colleagues about working for psychic pay,” LoCascio said. “In fact, I have an email folder, ‘Psychic Pay.’ This is where I put emails that I have received from former students over the years.”
Some of that feedback has come from NASA astronaut Victor Glover – what LoCascio calls his “Million Dollar Psychic Check.”
Glover, slated to travel to the International Space Station in a high-profile mission, is a former LoCascio student, who offered comments in favor of his former teacher’s nomination.
Even though he initially failed LoCascio’s fluid mechanics class, with LoCascio’s help, he took it again and earned an A.
“Jim’s belief in me helped me to believe in myself and was evinced in my grades and, most important, my effort since then,” he wrote.
In turn, LoCascio uses Glover’s statements to inspire other students.
Many of the students LoCascio has helped have needed extra assistance.
“I can’t tell you all the students who suffer from depression, or other mental illness, or family struggles, that Dr. LoCascio has taken under his wing,” wrote Glen Thorncroft, a mechanical engineering professor.
Part of LoCascio’s teachings have been creative: In 2016, he arranged for freshmen mechanical engineering students to see a play, “All My Sons,” which introduces questions that involve engineering ethics as well as an individual’s obligation to society.
“Dr. LoCascio is one of those rare professors that throughout his career has had a profound influence on many of his students,” wrote Andrew Davol, a former LoCascio student who became a peer on the mechanical engineering faculty team. “I know that my career choice may have been very different without his influence.”
LoCascio has helped other CSU programs, and he does outreach to help younger students get excited about STEM education. His dedication to helping his other family – those in the engineering field — traces back to his upbringing and his father, who began working at age 7.
His father, a union man who became a U.S. citizen at age 36 in 1942, always read three newspapers a day, LoCascio said. And today that memory has an impact on LoCascio’s students.
“For years now, I regularly email my students articles from the New York Times on a variety of topics, including, but not limited to, engineering ethics, energy, engineering innovation, energy policy and relevant obituaries,” he said. “You would be surprised the impact this has had on my students.”