The challenges of human space travel extend far beyond safely journeying distances that range from many millions to billions of miles. Upon landing, astronauts will not only need long-term shelter from radiation and atmospheres hostile to life as we know it, but also ways to generate the food and water needed for basic survival.
While studying material engineering at Santa Monica College, Victor Teran earned admission into the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program to address these challenges. The nationwide and highly competitive initiative enables students to gain practical experience and an up-close look at what it’s like to work at NASA.
“The main concept was to build a habitat so astronauts could live on Mars,” Victor says. “We needed to devise two types of technological environments and then find companies that would work on them.”
After succeeding in the research phase of his virtual mission, Victor worked with diverse students from across the country to design a rocket to reach Mars. “It wasn’t a real rocket, obviously,” he explains. But the process mirrored the preliminary stages of spacecraft development, from budgeting to determining the materials needed and the kind of research that would be conducted.
“I felt like an actual NASA worker,” Victor says of the experience, which involved everything from chemistry, biology and engineering to the budgeting necessary to make dreams a reality. “I learned so much about the rockets, the materials, the habitats. We were working on an entire mission. That’s what excited me the most.”
Launching Pad for Success
Victor’s own habitat growing up was far from ideal, even though his single mother did the best job she could in raising him and his two brothers. “We’re low-income, and my mom had to live in a shelter with us,” Victor recalls. “Then we moved into my grandfather’s garage, which had been modified to be sort of like a home.” But the city considered the modifications to be below code and evicted them. “So we had to move into a one-bedroom house, where I currently live with my grandfather, mom and one of my brothers,” he adds.
Through it all, though, Victor’s mom nurtured a scientific curiosity that allowed his imagination to travel far beyond the cramped confines of the family’s shared living quarters. She wanted her sons to enjoy the education that circumstances had stopped her from obtaining. From an early age, Victor watched Bill Nye the Science Guy and National Geographic specials, and his interest in science grew.
But his circumstances meant that he struggled with low self-esteem and lower grades. Then acceptance into SMC forced a change in attitude. “I had to acknowledge that if I continued being as unmotivated as I was in high school, I wouldn’t accomplish anything,” Victor says.
Being on the SMC campus offered a new gateway for Victor and his future. “I had never been to a college campus before,” he says. “My high school didn’t really do campus tours or field trips. I immediately loved the feel of SMC — the buildings, the fountain, the people, the activity.”
Victor started exercising, and as the excess weight he had gained through years of stress shrank, his commitment to succeed in his classes grew.
Meanwhile, his experiences in SMC’s laboratory courses solidified his passion for scientific endeavor. “I was involved in mixing metals and chemicals to see and understand the various reactions, and that’s when I knew I loved chemistry and engineering,” he recalls.
As his mindset became more positive, Victor says, he continued building on his efforts, earning As and Bs in his classes and ultimately dropping a total of 55 pounds. He began accumulating small victories that added up to big success. These included winning a $1,000 SMC scholarship. “That was more money than I had ever seen in my life,” he says. “I cannot describe how much that money meant to me. It was a ginormous victory to me. I made that through my own academic success.”
As Victor’s confidence strengthened and his grades improved, he became an SMC STEM tutor and peer mentor. As a tutor, he helped students enhance their understanding of advanced mathematics, chemistry and computer programming. As a mentor, he created workshops on efficient note-taking techniques and organizational methods that were a hit with his classmates.
“It was nerve-racking at first, because I knew somebody was relying on me,” he says of tutoring. But his confidence and maturity grew over time, and he found a strong community among his fellow peer mentors and STEM tutors that further strengthened and enriched his experience in the program.
In addition to enjoying the work, Victor saw STEM tutoring and peer mentoring as a way to repay the support of SMC’s faculty by aiding other students. He is especially grateful to Chemistry Professor Muriel Walker-Waugh for her caring and infectious enthusiasm.
“She was a big reason I enjoyed chemistry so much,” Victor says. “She’s very welcoming, and you can tell that teaching isn’t just a job to her. She’s genuinely excited by the material, and she communicates that joy to all of her classes.”
Victor will continue his studies by majoring in chemical engineering at California State University, Long Beach. After that, he hopes to build on his NCAS experience by working for NASA full time. He wants to be a lead developer for the robotic rovers that explore distant planets and send vital data back to NASA scientists. But wherever his career takes him in helping humanity explore the cosmos, Victor says he will remain grateful to SMC for the experience he gained as a peer tutor and mentor.
“That’s what gave me the confidence to sign up for NASA’s NCAS, and it has provided me with a bright new outlook on all the scientific fields — from calculus and physics to chemistry and programming — that I will use throughout my career."
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