From Nicaragua to Purdue, the roots that became wings

Purdue Alumnus Joseph Pabst was raised in Managua, Nicaragua in a home that valued education, self-improvement and sacrifice. 

Joseph Pabst“My family didn’t have a lot, but my parents believed firmly that education was the way out of poverty and so they often went without to make sure my siblings and I could take advantage of any academic opportunity available to us,” he said.

With help from his grandmother and his parents, Pabst was able to attend the American Nicaraguan School where he found that he was drawn to aviation. He says, “During those years, I developed a passion for all things aviation and thought, at that time, that I wanted to be a pilot or an engineer or technician within the aviation industry.”

His academic success and self-motivation landed him a spot as a Purdue freshman, studying Aviation Technology in 1996.  He initially considered transferring into the Purdue school of Aeronautics and Astronautics but enjoyed his aviation technology classes so much, he decided to stay the course. And he’s glad he did.

“Those courses not only gave me exposure to the broader aviation industry, they also gave me the chance to participate in my initial internship with Continental Airlines, which defined my early career path,” he said.

While an undergraduate at Purdue, Pabst worked part-time jobs at the Wiley Hall cafeteria and other dining locations to support himself. He also reached out to other international students who were far from home, just as he was.

quote 1“I was on campus before the Latino Cultural Center was established but found that everyone was so welcoming. I embraced the lessons I could learn from other people and their cultures.”

After several summer internships with increasing responsibilities, Continental Airlines hired Pabst when he graduated in 2000 as an analyst in their loyalty marketing department. Over the next several years, it became clear to him that his interest and acumen for the business side of aviation was growing. So, he returned to Purdue in 2004 to enroll in the Krannert Executive MBA program.

“That was another milestone in my career,” said Pabst. “I was fortunate to learn from the senior faculty in the program and also from others in my class who had much more business experience than I did. As a result, I was able to apply the things I learned right away.”

Pabst spent the next several years in the airline industry and parlayed that knowledge into his first position with American Express as a senior manager for the Airline Center of Excellence,  where they monitor airline credit profiles and assign credit ratings to airlines. After 13 years with the company, Pabst has become the vice president of U.S commercial charge risk strategy and has managed teams of 150 international colleagues. 

Pabst says that while it hasn’t always been easy, he is grateful for his journey and for his family  who instilled the value of education and the importance of giving back at an early age.

quote 2Pabst gives back by supporting Purdue University and the Fabretto Foundation, an organization that helps to fund educational opportunities for underserved children in Nicaragua. He also is active on the American Express Inclusion and Diversity Action Committee and leads the Commercial Risk colleague engagement team. 

He last visited the Purdue campus in 2019 with his wife and daughter and is amazed at how much it has grown.

“Today’s students are very fortunate to have a Latino Cultural Center as a home-away-from-home,” he says. “I hope they will continue to network with each other and with students of all backgrounds.  I encourage them to embrace change and learn about the differences that make us each unique.”

Pabst visits his family in Nicaragua once or twice each year and never forgets what his grandmother and mother told him years ago – that his inheritance was their investment in his academic education.  “I’m trying my best to be a good return on their investment,” he said.