News Column

Hispanic Astronaut Inspires High School Students

July 22, 2013
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Serena Aunon, the second Hispanic woman to become a NASA astronaut, spoke to about 100 Latino high school students Friday to try to spark their interest in science and technology.

"I think the biggest thing to start with is exposure," she said. "Sometimes you just have to plant that seed. You just need to plant one idea."

Aunon's audience was made up of high school juniors and seniors from throughout the state attending the four-day Hispanic College Institute at Virginia State University in Chesterfield County.

The annual institute is designed to help students get their first taste of college life while learning how to take the next steps on their educational paths. It's organized by the Virginia Latino Higher Education Network, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 and dedicated to creating a network of Hispanics in higher education.

Isaac A. Rodriguez, who has attended the institute for several years, is a firm believer in the experience.

"I wish I had a program like this when I was younger," he said.

Rodriguez, an assistant director at this year's institute, earned his doctorate in biomedical engineering from Virginia Commonwealth University in May.

Aunon, who spoke to an assembly and then spent time in classrooms working with students, told the students there is a host of opportunities at NASA. The International Space Station and other projects -- including commercial flights into space -- make this an exciting time to enter the agency, she said.

"The space program is in a period of a lot of change right now, and some folks are wondering, 'Hey, are we still flying? Once the last shuttle landed, is the space program dead?'" she said. "I'm here to tell them, 'The space program is alive and well.'"

NASA's participation in this year's institute is part of a project at the space agency that was created to help students' skills and participation in STEM education, encompassing science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

STEM info

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"STEM education is closely linked with our nation's prosperity in the modern global economy and our nation's future depends on elevating STEM education as a national priority through education reforms, policies to drive innovation and federal and state spending priorities," according to the Washington-based STEM Education Coalition.

Aunon said it's critical to expose students to the benefits early.

"We're here to try to get them to picture themselves in the STEM fields, just to show them what's possible, give them some examples," she said.

Christine Yohannes, who just graduated from high school in Northern Virginia, said the astronaut's talk inspired her to consider a career at NASA.

"When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut," said Yohannes, who took a college aerospace class as a high school junior. "But then I wanted to be in engineering and now I want to be in business."

The talk rekindled some of her earlier interest in NASA. "I'm going to see what they have to offer."

Aunon, whose father came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1960 and whose mother was born in Richmond, got a degree in engineering from George Washington University before going to medical school at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where she trained to be a flight surgeon.

She joined NASA in 2006 and was chosen as an astronaut in 2009. She completed her training in 2011.

Aunon, who credits her parents for pushing her academically, hopes to influence younger, first-generation Hispanic students who are entering college.

"We help show them how to apply to college and we help show them that it is possible," she said.

Follow Serena Aunon on twitter @AstroSerena

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