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Choose Your Own Adventure Pt. 2

Well, there we were… surrounded by hoards of walking zombies and pinned into the corner with Rick and Darryl… Oh shoot, wait, no that was just my dream about the Walking Dead the other night. However, there is something to be said about that. As time ticks forward, it seems like my dreams are slowly becoming reality - not by any amount of sitting around, but by difficult, unrelenting, exhaustingly hard work. My dream to become an astronaut is beginning to rise to the surface of reality. I’m writing this on the first day of summer, just three days after I found out that I had been offered an internship - an internship at NASA Ames. I’m here to tell you that hard work pays off. Most of the time it doesn’t seem that way. You put in and you might get nothing out after a day, or a week, or after several months, or maybe even after a year. But if you work long enough and refuse to give up, you will be rewarded in the end.

Let’s hop in our most excellent time traveling phone booth and go back 9 months. I had walked off the bus from Field Training a person anew. I felt like the world was mine for the taking and anything was possible. This fresh wave of optimism and bravado was certainly welcoming and gave me fuel for the first month or two of the Fall Semester. I had one goal in mind for junior year – secure an internship for this upcoming summer. With my previous two summers filled with studying abroad, I wanted to mix this one up and actually get some substantial stuff onto my resume. More than that, I wanted to build industry ties and technical experience that would help me in the hunt to become an astronaut. After all, I had already accomplished many of the other major milestones: received my pilot’s license, minoring in Russian and majoring in Aerospace, participated in various research labs, and gunning for a pilot’s slot within the Air Force. The next thing for me was to work somewhere where I could take my classroom knowledge and apply it to the real world.

I walked into that career fair with a confidence I had not known before and a resume that I presumed to be stellar (more on that later). Talking with person after person for 4 hours can get pretty monotonous, especially if you’re as introverted as I am. By the end of it, my best efforts yielded me two leads to follow – an interview with Rolls Royce later that week and a rejection from JPL (but the name of a guy at NASA Ames to reach out to!). The interview came and went with many things that I could have improved upon. I showed up in my military uniform (it was a Tuesday), talked about my time at Field Training pretty much the entire interview instead of mixing up topics, and totally botched the “end-of-interview” dance that occurs. I walked out of that interview with many doubts in my mind. It was like I already knew that the verdict on it was a solid “no”. The other lead was to reach out to someone at NASA Ames in their aerothermodynamics branch (big word meaning hot air). I did so and was promptly told, “reach out to us in the Spring, we aren’t hiring now.” The month of September came and went just like the Career Fair. However, I’ll remember September more for some of the other things I was able to do, like going to the Lantern Festival, driving a literal whale of a minivan up I-85 to the International Food Festival in Marietta, or watching some seriously cool sunrises. None of that would have been possible without the company of my fantastic girlfriend.

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October came and went in a blur. From trips to the botanical gardens, Georgia Aquarium, and even a flight over the North Georgia mountains, every weekend was filled with something exciting. The internship hunt slowed down for a while as tests picked up, but I remained hopeful that something would arise from the career fair. This false sense of security would ride along with me for many months and grant my conscience a reprieve from worrying. It would cause me to sit and wait and eventually lead to the coming storm.

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November was a similar experience, but this time about ten degrees colder. Now, instead of being able to wear a t-shirt outside, I had to put on a long-sleeve (gotta love the Atlanta weather)! From going to Semi-Formal at Piedmont Park to an insane seventy-two hours of working on a Jet and Rocket Propulsion project that I had three months to do, it all seemed to flash by. Kids, when a professor gives you three months to do a project, do NOT wait to work on it until the week it’s due. We did not sleep or leave the study area for the better part of three days. The lot of us crawled out of that room dazed, tired, and full of anxiety. I’d heard horror stories from other group projects, but this was one I had to live through on my own. I had vowed that I would never need to pull an all-nighter in college…well now I can vow that I never want to pull an all-nighter again. In terms of the internship hunt, I continued to ride that false sense of security. Instead of reaching out to people and cultivating my connections, I sat in comfort with the expectation that something would naturally turn up. Meanwhile, friends around me were landing jobs, getting interviews, or at least making more headway than I was.

When December hit, I could hardly believe that the semester was already over. The classes I had taken were the highlight of all the classes I had taken up to now. I will never forget my time in Vehicle Performance and the standing ovation we all gave our teacher at the end, or the thrilling stories my Russian culture teacher would weave throughout lectures that kept us on the edge of our seats. Overall, this semester was my favorite by a long shot. It was full of new experiences, incredible classes, and best of all, someone to share it with.

I was back at it again in January with fresh optimism from the break and a renewed vigor to seek out an internship. I attended as many info sessions as I could during the Spring career fair and tried to get my name out there to more companies. I made a major decision to end my time at the Combustion Lab and make it my last semester there. Although the work was fascinating, I wanted to do something with vehicle performance and had heard about another professor who was researching electric aircraft from my roommate. It was a very difficult day to walk into the Combustion Lab and tell the people I had been working with the past year and a half that this would be the end. (For those that don’t know, I’m pretty bad at ending things). On the PLUS side, I was promoted to be a PLUS Mentor, which meant a promotion and a pay raise as a tutor (see what I did there?). I also got to do another flight up to Chattanooga and even a food flight over to Gwinnett County Airport for some $100 burgers and an evening with an Elvis impersonator.

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February rolled around and brought some exciting news. Gulfstream indicated that my resume had been passed higher up in the chain for review and I was contacted by two people at GTRI for interviews. Once again, my false sense of security was stoked. I kept thinking to myself, “This is it. This is finally it. After all the waiting you are finally going to snag one of them internships.” Nothing turned up from either of them. Weeks went by and I received no responses. Meanwhile, in the realm of classes, the intensity began to turn up and midterm season began. I got stretched thin between obligations and picked up meditation practice again to help cope with it all. The end of February brought an exciting surprise, however. For several weeks we had been waiting on pins and needles to find out if we got pilot slots. In a class of 21 of us, 9 of us wanted to be pilots, which is pretty crazy. Of those 9, 7 of us were selected to become pilots….including yours truly! The people who had been selected were called up one by one and their new job was announced to the entire detachment. In that single instance, I was awash with excitement, fear, nervousness, and plenty of other emotions that brought me back to my time as a smelly sophomore in High School. The relief I felt when they called my name and the fact that I got a pilot slot was an amazing moment that I hope I can cherish for a long time. For two and a half years, I had been telling people that, “I am ~hopefully~ going to get a pilot slot within Air Force ROTC.” Now, I could actually tell them that I had been selected! The rest of the day we bounced around like kids in a candy store as we tried on flight suits and ordered some Ray-Bans. That was a great way to round out February.

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March was an exciting month because it contains the single best day out of the entire year, my birthday! My friends surprised me with dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant and an evening of good company. I also got to go to the Dekalb Farmer’s Market for the first time since I had made my return to Atlanta 3 years ago! I love going to farmer’s markets, because they are a wonderful blend of new things to try, reasonable prices, and the best thing in the world – food. I was even able to pick out my own birthday cake: a decadent 3-layer German chocolate cake that was delicious just to look at. After my birthday, March seemed to slog on because of our ten straight weeks without a day off. In addition, the last 3 weeks had been filled with tests and projects that were wearing down my drive to keep going. I crawled across the finish line to get to Spring Break, feeling as if I’d given everything I could just to get to that point. Over Spring Break, I reached out to the people at NASA Ames once more, but was simply told that “my resume had been taken into account and was on file.” I was beginning to feel disheartened by the fact that no one from the Spring or Fall career fair had rung me up. While others around me were getting their notices, it seemed like I was being left in the dust. Despite feeling this way, I applied to several more companies online and began to get in touch with some of my contacts. Finally, finally, I was beginning to take the hint that I would have to take the battle to the front lines and couldn’t remain passive anymore. Unfortunately, this sense of urgency was coming late in the game, perhaps too late.

With the beginning of April, I knew that this was my last shot at making it. If I wanted an internship, I would need to do everything in my power to make it happen. After hearing a guest lecturer one evening, I connected with him and asked for advice. What he told me was pretty startling – my resume was seriously bad and needed a lot of work. After months and months of sending this bad boy out, I was taken aback that I had missed something as obvious as that. Showing it to some of my other friends, they all agreed that it was hot garbage and needed serious work. In the span of five days and with many different helpers, it transformed from hot garbage into something much more “eye catching”. In addition to the resume facelift, I began to go through my rolodex (contact list for those of you too young) and asking for internship opportunities from anyone that might be in the know. This went on for week after week with the countdown clock ticking ever closer. No matter what happened, I needed to have something figured out by the end of finals week. Some leads seemed promising, while other doors closed on me instantly. Every professor I went to said the same thing: “If you had come to me 2 months ago, maaayybee I could have helped you out.” I was truly going the distance this time, working late in the night (okay, 10pm) to chase down any position I might be available to find. People told me I was doing everything I could, that I was doing it right, but for me it wasn’t right until I had landed a position somewhere. The thought of doing nothing for an entire summer scared me. I like to keep myself busy and productive and, above all, wanted to make my summer meaningful. As finals got closer, I was filled with a sense of dread that nothing might come from all my efforts.

Right before finals week began, I marched into the new Chair of the Aerospace Department’s office and made it very clear that I was willing to work anywhere and for anything this summer, I just didn’t want to do nothing. A friendly guy, he told me that he would reach out to some of his contacts and let me know. Two days later he reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in being a member of his research team for the summer. It wasn’t a bad gig by any means and would be a great opportunity to build inroads for grad school, so I was happy with that option. However, there was still something at the back of my mind that felt like I had failed. This wasn’t a true internship like so many of my friends would be doing. It almost felt like a second hand option that I only got because I failed. When I finally came to grips that nothing would be coming, that I would be relegated to living in Atlanta for the summer, I tried to make my peace with it in my mind.

I struggled with this settlement for five days before something popped into my inbox right before I was about to head home. It was an email from NASA Ames. It was an email from the same people I had reached out to in March and earlier on in September. They were asking if I would like to be an intern at their center working on CFD simulations for the Orion Heat Shield (ie. something going into space). As fast as I could, I replied back with something along the lines of “YES, please sign me up!” Working at NASA was a dream opportunity that I thought had also slipped away from me. Dozens of people around me were getting picked up by NASA, but my offer inbox still sat empty. Getting this email was the last thing I expected to see. I thought that this might be a joke and that they would email me back saying, “Actually, sorry, we had someone who replied back faster than you that we’re going with instead.” For two days, I sat waiting for a reply that confirmed what I desperately hoped to be true. Sitting in the Baltimore airport on my way back home, I finally got this confirmation.

I look back at the last 8 months and think through everything I did wrong (Answer: so so much). I’m trying to deconstruct it all so that I can take something away from it and improve on my next go-around. After all, isn’t the whole point of life to learn from your mistakes? Along the way, I made the mistake of being too passive. I believed that an internship would fall into my lap and that I had impressive enough credentials that it would happen on its own. Until April kicked me into high gear, until I received critical feedback about my resume, until I began to take the hunt seriously, I was not worthy of getting an internship. I can’t even begin to wonder what stroke of luck had my previous emails surface into their hiring inboxes at NASA Ames. It’s like all the work I did in April was a debt to pay, with this as my reward.

The biggest thing I’ve taken away is that you need to possess a drive to never give up. If you take the idea of giving up off the table, then you will ensure that you put forth your best effort. I certainly didn’t give up, even though I had every reason to along the way. It was the end of finals week and I had nothing to show in terms of an internship after 8 long months of hunting. Whatever you might be doing, whether it’s taking a class, learning a skill, or searching for a job, you need to maintain that passion to keep going even when the going gets rough. I had to keep telling myself, “I didn’t come this far to only come this far.” I wanted to go further than I had ever before. Life’s struggles are the best teacher and something that everyone has to experience on their own to truly understand. I’m certainly not done with my struggles, but if anything, I’m better equipped for the future. Those of you reading this, if you take anything home from it, please remember that you should never give up, never surrender. Your hard work will pay off in the end.

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Posted by oklempay 17:48 Archived in USA Tagged fall school nasa research classes hunt semester internship chattanooga intern vehicle_performance Comments (1)

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