Saturday, March 28, 2015

Calling All Space-Interested Students Seeking a Way

Yesterday I received my first communication from a student who had read my blog and wanted my advice. From time to time, a student who I meet or who is introduce to me follows up to ask for advice or assistance. I expect and even hope that this blog will open up my circle to include students and interested parties who I wouldn’t otherwise connect with.

Since I created this blog a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about my audience. Primarily, my writings here are a form of self-expression and my audience doesn't much matter (no offense). I learned many years ago that I’m a writer. Writing is how I best process information, from informal brainstorming to therapeutic venting to chronicling my days. I have the option of scribbling in a private journal, but I choose to publish my words on the Internet for anyone to come across and potentially gain something from.

Secondarily, I’ve determined that this blog is also a continuation of my mostly failed attempts to mentor students who are interested in space careers. With all of the emphasis on mentoring in the professional community, one would think that there would be avenues where a young professional working in the field could communicate one-on-one or with a small group of interested and enthusiastic students occasionally or regularly. I’m a resourceful person but I have yet to find this opportunity, should it exist. (Side note: I've just signed up MentorNet which wasn't open to me before; let's see if it leads to anything.)

I have asked professors and administrators at all three of the local universities in my area for assistance in connecting with students. I have given guest lectures at freshman seminar classes, specialized classes, and student clubs. When I was President of the Florida Space Development Council, I tried to connect with local chapters of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space to engage students with no success. I have given my email address out to any student who asks for it and tried to keep in touch with those who reach out to me. I long to connect with students who may want mentorship or a continued connection while they establish their careers. The closest I’ve come is regularly tutoring local high school foster girls in math.

This effort comes from a strong desire to give back as a thank-you to those who assisted and mentored me when I was a student trying to navigate my career options. So many people helped me along the way, both in big and small ways. They've all meant so much to me, more than they know. I can’t begin to thank them all or to repay their kindness, and so I pass it on, pay it forward, try to do for others what was done for me.

When I was a student, I was hungry for a connection with the world outside of my school walls. In middle and high school I attended Space Camp and it inspired me. I was enthusiastic about getting involved in the industry as soon as I could. I attended a women in science workshop as a freshman in high school and skipped out on my assigned sessions to meet two satellite engineers. I jobshadowed three scientists and engineers at Goddard Space Flight Center during my sophomore year of high school. Sally Ride visited my high school during my senior year. I graduated high school eager to pursue a space career.

In undergrad, classes and college life sucked up most of my time. Despite only living an hour from Kennedy Space Center, I found myself isolated from the “real world” of the industry, buried in books, studying for tests, and enjoying extracurricular clubs. This is how it should be, of course. But I was desperate for a connection with the industry I so deeply wanted to join. I latched on to every opportunity to meet professionals, but I didn’t know how to reach them. No one offered me a clear path to connect with people working in the field.

I continuously questioned my path, wanting to know if I should pursue becoming an academic or a research scientist or an engineer or a policy wonk or an educator or an astronaut. Without a means of connecting to the industry, I relied on professionals to reach out to find me until I got to grad school and the world opened up to me more and more.

A decade ago, I would have loved someone in the space industry to connect with me and tell me exactly what he/she does on a daily basis, what background is needed for the job, what exciting things I could get involved in, what some of the drawbacks were, what was important to focus on, and what wasn’t. I would have been saved from many anxious self-debates to know from people who have been there that it’s okay to question, to change my mind, and to go against the consensus, to follow my heart, to be true to myself and my passions regardless of what others think. I had to learn all this the hard way, as we all do.

I struggled with a lot of life’s transitions as a young adult: it’s okay to choose a major immediately in college even if you’re unsure, it’s okay to move away from a loved one for graduate school to put your education first, it’s okay to take a less common route, it’s okay to diverge from an advisor’s path for you, it’s okay to stand up for yourself and your values, it’s okay to drop out of a Ph.D. program when majority advice and the lure of being called doctor is strong, it’s okay to take risks, to not conform, to be girly in a male-dominated field, to stand tall when others swing at you, to put people and relationships first, to open one’s heart and share yourself with the world. It’s all okay.

If I can be one more voice of reassurance in a sea of “thou shalt do this or else” and one more example that the less followed path is sometimes the right one, I may be able to touch someone who is also struggling in youth and young adulthood. If I can connect someone with an opportunity, a resource, another professional who may be able to assist them, that is invaluable. I am happy to be an intermediary for those with a will who are seeking a way.

This blog, publicly accessible for anyone to find, is to give my readership and especially students an idea of what it’s like to work in the space industry. My life is not the life of anyone else’s and is not typical or representative, but it is one example out of countless possibilities. The opportunities that I’ve been given and so many others are available to those who are interested and take action.

Someone once asked me: “What are your dreams? And what are you doing to make your dreams become a reality?”

If you know of any students who are interested in working in the space industry who you think may benefit from this blog, please send them the link or connect them with my Twitter or LinkedIn accounts. If you are a student, please don’t be afraid to reach out, to me and to others. You are the future of the industry. We need you. Get out there and make a difference!

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