For Rigoberto Lopez, a mechanical engineering student at Texas A&M University, a simple sojourn through cyberspace eventually led him to the surface of Mars.
The trip toward the rocky Martian terrain began in high school when Lopez launched a web search for scholarships. A search for scholarships led Lopez to the homepage for the Hispanic College Fund.
“And then I saw they were teaming up with NASA,” Lopez said of a web page that described the program NASA-MUST (Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology).
The venture involves the Hispanic College Fund, the United Negro College Fund Special Programs and the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers, according to the NASA website. Although the Hispanic College Fund administers the NASA-MUST program, NASA funds the $2.15 million program.
The program ultimately led Lopez to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where he used a robot to survey and create digital maps of a simulated version of the Martian landscape.
Lopez said the experience he has gained through NASA-MUST has had a major impact on his life. His family members, particularly his parents who are immigrants from Mexico, were most impressed. His father is a disabled maintenance worker, and his mother is a teacher’s assistant.
“They see me doing all these things; it’s kind of mind-blowing for them,” Lopez said.
To reach diverse groups of students, the Hispanic College Fund partners with several other higher education organizations: the United Negro College Fund, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the Association on Higher Education and Disability and the Institute for Broadening Participation. Annually, the NASA-MUST program serves 115 students from diverse backgrounds. The program is in its sixth year. While the program is open to all students, a special emphasis is placed on those from groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields.
Participating students who get at least a 3.0 GPA and pursue a degree in a STEM field are eligible for scholarships that cover half their tuition up to $10,000. They also are placed in 10-week summer internships at one of NASA’s centers. The internships pay $6,000.
Beyond the scholarships and internships, NASA-MUST students receive academic and social support and networking opportunities with astronauts and other NASA employees.
“I wish I had programs like this when I was young,” said Dr. Carlos Santiago, CEO of the Hispanic College Fund, during a NASA-MUST symposium held last summer in Baltimore.
Amid the widespread clamor for ways to encourage and prepare more students from diverse groups to enter STEM fields, Santiago said the program has proved its mettle in that regard. Of all the NASA-MUST participants over the years, Santiago said 90 percent had gone on to one of three areas that fulfill the program’s mission: graduate school, a job with NASA, or some other STEM-related occupation.
“Those kinds of results don’t just occur randomly,” Santiago said. “It’s the dedicated effort of partners. And NASA is a great partner with us, and we’re a great partner with NASA.” NASA officials also said the program was helping youths from diverse backgrounds soar to new heights.
For instance, Vanessa Webbs, project manager for NASA-MUST based at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, said that, when NASA recently decided to hire 45 “fresh out” students, meaning those who had graduated within the past five years, 38 of them were from the NASA-MUST project.
“What that says is our MUST scholars—faced with national competition for jobs—can outshine the competition,” Webbs said. “They have experience at NASA and [are] what employers are looking for in a well-rounded employee.”
For Lopez, NASA-MUST provides the opportunity to advance his education and fulfill his career aspirations all at once. “I thought, ‘Great … scholarship … internship,’” Lopez said. “It’s been amazing, all the support that we’ve received from the program,” Lopez said. “It’s really helpful.”
For instance, without assistance from the program, Lopez said he would have had to work his way through college and take out student loans. He earned a scholarship worth close to $5,000 to cover half of his tuition at Texas A&M, enabling him to avoid loans altogether.
“Having the scholarship really reduced that burden,” Lopez said. “I don’t have to worry about all the other costs. I can focus on my classes and actually pursue other activities.”
As of late, those other activities have involved doing 10 hours of paid research in rocket science weekly with a Texas A&M professor — an experience that Lopez hopes will lead to graduate school.
The scholarship also has helped free up more time for Lopez to get involved with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. In addition, Lopez has had some memorable experiences because of the NASA-MUST program. When he was an intern in summer 2010 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Lopez was able to help create digital elevation maps that gave NASA engineers a visual tool to help confirm what the rover was “seeing.” Working at NASA has given Lopez some other unique opportunities. For example, a mentor Lopez met through the MUST program passed along the contact information of former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez, who, like Lopez, is the son of Mexican immigrants.
“I sent him an e-mail telling him that I wanted to be an astronaut and asked him to have lunch,” Lopez recalled. Hernandez agreed, and Lopez drove to Houston to meet Hernandez at a restaurant near the Johnson Space Center.
“I got to learn his life story, [the] struggles he went through and how he overcame them,” Lopez recalled. “As a kid, he used to come to California from Mexico with his family to the plantation to help.”
Lopez also listened as Hernandez related how he had to overcome language barriers as he pursued higher education as the first in his family to go to college.
“He had to get past a lot of things about himself, learn a lot of new things without really having any mentors,” Lopez said.
Stories such as Lopez’s were not uncommon at the symposium held in Baltimore. There, NASA-MUST students got to interact with NASA administrators and employees. They attended workshops on a variety of subjects that ranged from how to maximize their NASA internship experiences to how to move on to graduate school.
The symposium focused on much more than simply finding a job. One workshop, for instance, offered advice on how to leverage a college education to become a STEM field entrepreneur. Students also heard motivational speeches about the role they would play as they pursued their careers in STEM fields.
“You’re going to solve some of the greatest challenges known to this Earth,” Webbs said. “You’re going to take us to Mars and beyond.”