PAWTUCKET — Of all the people she's wanted to tell about her participation in an elite NASA-sponsored educational program, 37-year-old Jodi Perron wishes she could relay the news to her former guidance counselor at Cumberland High School.
That woman, now deceased, had grounded Perron's freshman dreams of pursuing a course of study that could have lead her to become a rocket scientist at the famed U.S. space center.
“My guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I would love to work at NASA and be a robot developer. She kind of rolled her eyes and smiled at me, and told me that you have to be a really special person to work at NASA. And that you have to 'know people' to get in there. I was crushed,” said Perron.
Now, over 20 years later, the Pawtucket resident is finally getting her wish: she's been selected to participate in the National Community College Aerospace Scholar Program, which includes a three-day visit to NASA's Johnson Space Center.
It's more than a visit to the Houston, Texas-based space center. Perron will participate in an on-site team project that includes the very thing that she use to fantasize about: designing a robotic rover that could be used for exploring Mars.
In addition to getting a behind-the-scenes look at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and participating in web-based activities with community college students from across the U.S., she will have the chance to interact with NASA engineers, educators and astronauts.
“It's so exciting. I'm really interested in seeing what kinds of things they are going to teach us,” she said.
Perron said she always loved science and especially all things having to do with the planets, rockets and space exploration. “At Cumberland Middle School, I used to read every book that they had on space science. And I would work on the computers during study period,” she said.
However, after the deflating conversation with her guidance counselor, she ended up just pursuing a course of general studies in high school, and traded college plans for marriage and a job as an office manager at a wholesale distributor in East Providence.
After the birth of her daughter, Perron decided to concentrate on working her way up in the company. Always adept at computer technology, she rose next to operations manager and then marketing manager. While she had done well at the company career-wise, she said that when her daughter turned 16, she decided to finally go back to school and pursue her college degree. She has been taking courses part-time at the Community College of Rhode Island and is scheduled to graduate in May with an associate's degree in computer science.
It was at CCRI that Perron, a member of the college's Phi Beta Kappa honor society, received a newsletter advertising the National Community College Aerospace Scholars Program. “When I saw that is was sponsored by NASA, I said, 'I have to try for this, '” Perron said. “However, my next thought was, 'How am I going to fit it in?' But then I thought, 'I don't care. I have to do this.'” she stated. She asked a favorite CCRI professor, Michael Kelly, to write her a letter of recommendation, and began the six-month course of on-line study. “He made me believe in myself more than anyone,” she said of Kelly, who is chairman of the Computer Science Department.
“It was a ton of work...so much homework and research,” said Perron, who was also spending 50 to 60 hours a week at her daytime job. “We had to develop and design a robotic rover for a mission to Mars. It was all done on-line, and sometimes I would only be getting two or three hours of sleep a night,” she said. “I would tell myself, 'This is only temporary.”
While Perron's husband of 20 years, Brian, was trying to be encouraging, he crankily asked her at one point, “How much more are you going to put on your plate?”
However, Perron's persistence paid off and after she submitted her completed project to the competition, she learned that she was one of the 92 students out of a field of 232 chosen for the select group that would be invited to visit the NASA facility in May. “I am the first person from Rhode Island to be chosen for this,” she said, proudly.
Perron notified her boss that she would be needing a few vacation days for her NASA journey. She said her family and friends are supportive and excited for her. Her daughter, Brittany, gave her a rocket necklace, one friend gave her space shuttle earrings and another gave her a space rover pin with a card that said, “Reach for the Stars.”
She is also hoping that she can be an inspiration to others, including her now 19-year-old daughter, who had been uncertain about attending college but is now rethinking that path.
“I was born and raised in Rhode Island and I work 10 minutes from my house. I have only flown twice before,” said Perron, with a smile. “But I'm so excited about this opportunity, and for the people I'm going to meet at NASA and be able to network with.”
Plus, now that Perron's associate's degree is close at hand, she has not ruled out the possibility of continuing her education further to possibly become the space engineer she had desired to be as a young teen. “Who knows? I'm just trying to keep pushing for a brighter future for my family,” she said.
Rachel Kraft, a spokeswoman for NASA, said that the National Community College Aerospace Program was established in 2010, but that the state of Texas, home of the Johnson Space Center, has been offering a regional version since 2001.
“NASA sees community colleges as a terrific place for a good pool of students who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math,” said Kraft. Additionally, she said that because the community college level represents a somewhat under-served population, NASA is trying to reach out to give more students an opportunity to do hands-on work and get some idea of what it is really like to be a scientist or an engineer. “The goal is to improve the technical workforce in the future and help to diversity it,” she said.
In what would have sent Perron over the moon with excitement 20 years ago, Kraft added that NASA also offers similar programs for high school students interested in science and engineering, and even has one specifically designed for girls in their junior year.