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For 19 UCF students, the dream of working for NASA came true this past semester as they completed internships at Kennedy Space Center through NASA’s Pathways Program.

The program gives qualifying university students an opportunity to work at the space agency, where every semester UCF has students working in everything from engineering to accounting. The students get the experience and are paid. The highly competitive program draws up to thousands of applicants each semester for 15-35 slots at KSC, according to Pathways Coordinator Mai Miller.

UCF’s big numbers are no surprise given UCF’s roots. The university was born around the start of the space race and is just 50 miles from KSC. Part of the university’s original charter was to support the needs of the space program, which means unique opportunities for our students and faculty.

From research — which may lead to growing food on Mars, to preparing the next generation workforce to prep payloads and design launch vehicles — UCF plays an important role in the industry. About 30 percent of KSC employees have UCF degrees. NASA and commercial companies often hire graduates who have successfully completed the NASA program because of their combined academic knowledge and practical experience.

To highlight this amazing opportunity, we share the story of three individuals who have followed different roads to UCF and how they are working to make their space-related careers a reality.

Margarita Bassil ’21

Mechanical Engineering

Starts her job as part of Support Safety and Mission Assurance Office for the Commercial Crew Program at KSC later this month.

Margarita Bassil, a New Jersey native, grew up hearing that education would be her ticket to a better life. Her parents, immigrants who fled Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s, have always emphasized higher education to their children.

“My mother would always say, education is something no one can take from you,” Bassil says. “It’s still true today.”

These words drove Bassil to excel in math and science at Olympia High School and then at Valencia College, where she enrolled as part of the DirectConnect to UCF program. That meant automatic entry to UCF to pursue her engineering degree once she earned her associate degree. At UCF she took demanding classes, joined clubs, and made sure to take advantage of the many services the university provides to help students prepare for the workforce. For example, Career Services helped her prepare her first resume and ran her through mock interviews ahead of the big one with NASA.

“Success necessitates sacrifice,” Bassil says. “Nothing in this world is handed to you and that’s why I’ve worked so hard. There were a lot of social things I missed, but it is so worth it. And people, they will help you if they see your potential and your commitment.”

One of those people was NASA engineer and UCF graduate faculty member Felix Soto Toro. Bassil met him during her second year at UCF.

“He’s been an amazing mentor and introduced me to a lot of people,” Bassil says. “Through the internship, I was able to develop my soft skills. And understand the importance of documentation management and traceability at both the center and agency level. I still have a lot to learn, but I think that was really helpful. Working with people at KSC, who will now be my co-workers, it’s one of the biggest benefits of the internships.”

The 23-year-old always knew she wanted to work in the space industry. There is just something about space and the endless possibilities, she says. Her experience at KSC only reinforced her decision.

“Being a part of the commercial crew program has demonstrated that we cannot progress as a society without taking risks and exploring the unknown,” she says. “Had we not dared to explore our solar system, we wouldn’t have a lot of the technology we use today such as geolocation devices and infrared lights. It is imperative that we continue to push the boundaries of our scientific limits so we can embrace the unknown while contributing to the advancement of mankind.”

Bassil starts her full-time job as part of the Safety and Mission Assurance Office for the Commercial Crew Program later this month.

“I am super excited, relieved, thankful and lots of emotions, really,” Bassil says. “I guess it does show that no dream is impossible as long as you work hard.”

Adolfo Alvarado Rivera

Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Physics

Estimated graduation: Fall 2022

Ongoing internship: Launch Services Program, Dynamic Environments

Adolfo Alvarado Rivera takes pride in surprising people. He’s been doing it his entire life, but he especially gets a kick out of it these days.

“I don’t look like an engineer,” he says. “I mean look at me. I’ve got long hair, tattoos and I’m a big guy. Football player maybe, but engineer, nah.”

Looks can be deceiving. For the past three semesters, Rivera has been an intern at KSC. He is part of the team that uses different tools like sound-pressure levels and shock-response spectrum to analyze vibrations caused by space vehicles when they take off. Researchers have to minimize these vibrations to protect the incredibly sensitive instruments aboard the rockets. The data gathered from the analyses paint a picture of how the rocket is vibrating and how those vibration frequencies can impact the sensitive instruments onboard.

For the 31-year-old Orlando resident, NASA is exactly where he wants to be next year when he graduates – after almost six years of study.

“It’s been a long road,” he says. “But I’m almost there.”

Rivera is the epitome of a non-traditional student. He graduated from Orlando’s Colonial High School with what he says were mediocre grades. Other than math, he was bored in school. After high school, the last thing on his mind was more school. He joined the U.S. Coast Guard instead.

“I loved it. I thought I was going to make a career out of it,” he says. “But I got hurt and so I came home. I enrolled at Valencia [College] and was part of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. That’s where I heard about NASA’s Pathways Program. Now I actually work there. It’s just amazing.”

But getting “there” took some sacrifice. He worked while going to school and juggled a family that includes his wife and now 5-year-old son. He focused on getting the grades he needed to get into UCF’s competitive engineering college. He says he knew that was the key to getting a full-time job at NASA. During the past two years, he worked more hours and took fewer classes so his wife could finish nursing school. She wrapped up just as the pandemic hit and has been working at a local hospital, which means Rivera has been the primary caregiver for their son. Rivera has taken the time to plant a love of space in his son. They’ve spent time building and shooting model rockets in a park near their apartment in between work and school.

“It’s the life you know,” he says. “It’s a juggle and I maybe didn’t do things in the order most people do, but I wouldn’t change it. I have this incredible life and my dream of working at NASA or a space company is within reach. And my son, he’s going to know that anything is possible.”

Rivera, who is from Puerto Rico, says the internship has been invaluable to him.

“At school failing a test can have a crushing effect on your grade and a lot of times you do not have the time to ask for feedback on what to improve,” he says. “At work, I have failed at certain tasks, but they practice ‘Lessons Learned’ as a key point. It is a way to view progress, to reflect on your steps to keep moving forward.”

And unlike some dreams that don’t live up to expectations, Rivera says that after several semesters at KSC, he is even more determined to reach his goal: leading a mission for NASA to advance space exploration.

“The whole process is long, and I’ve been helped by so many people along the way. And how can you not get inspired every day. I’ve met some wonderful people. The enthusiasm that radiates from each co-worker in any department I have seen is infectious.”

Jaden Chambers

Mechanical Engineering

Estimated graduation: May 2023

Ongoing internship: Construction of Facilities Branch at KSC

Jaden Chambers, a second-year student in the College of Engineering, wasn’t even planning to apply for the Pathways internship.

“I thought I wasn’t qualified enough to be considered,” Chambers says. “After discussing it with some of my closest friends, I was pushed to try my best and apply anyway. It 100 percent paid off. This experience has shown me that you can’t limit yourself or underestimate your worth, because you’re only as valuable as you make yourself out to be.”

Chambers says much of his ongoing success is a direct result of his close-knit group of friends. His roommate and best friend Jaylen Brown is the chair of the College of Business Ambassadors. The two friends met in band at Palm Beach Central High School, and both applied to UCF. Brown, who is a finance major, is always pushing Chambers to just “go for it.”

Tanya Tremel, another close friend and finance major is interning at Lockheed Martin. She helped Chambers prepare his resume and is always available for advice. And Philip Wright, a friend who is majoring in broadcast journalism helped Chambers practice for his interview putting his acting skills to use.

They all encourage Chambers to live the dream and leave nothing on the table. That means trying new things and reaching for more than you thought might be possible. Chambers has big dreams.

His interest lies in technology and robotics, and he hopes to someday design and construct robotic equipment that will be used in a space mission, perhaps to help colonize Mars or another planet.

He knew an engineering degree was a good way to become part of the space industry. Aside from taking classes at UCF, he’s heavily involved in UCF’s chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Through the student club, he’s gained some valuable experience in aviation design and high-powered rocketry.

“UCF and AIAA have so much to offer any aspiring engineer,” he says.

Chambers is one of the newest interns at NASA having been selected in January. In addition to being a full-time student carrying 12-15 credits a semester, he works at KSC’s Construction of Facilities Branch at KSC dealing with mechanical equipment across the center. The job involves a lot of design reviews and site inspections. It also allows Chambers to see a variety of ongoing projects at KSC.

“The most exciting part of my internship has been having the ability to see the work that is being done in all the facilities,” he says. “From the rockets being assembled to the enormity of the Vehicle Assembly Building, this internship experience is something I’ll never forget.”

Written by Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala for UCF Today