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Class of 2012 graduate realizes NASA dreams
A pivotal moment in Jodi Perron’s life came when she was in junior high school.
Growing up at the height of the space shuttle program, Perron was interested in science and fascinated by NASA. It was her dream to work there, but she was encouraged to pursue less lofty goals.
“I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to work for NASA,” Perron remembered, “and she said – I’ll never forget it – ‘Let’s come back down to Earth. What do you really want to be?’”
Perron was crushed. She continued to study the sciences in high school but with little encouragement to pursue a career in a technical field. She gave up thinking about a career or a higher education.
Twenty years later, Perron, 37, is finally earning her college degree and even made it to NASA.
It took her a long time to get here.
Perron, who lives in Pawtucket, got married in 1991, became a mother and wife at a young age and put her ideas of pursuing a career out of her mind.
“At that point in my life I thought that a wife and mother was all I would ever be,” she said.
Perron and her husband met as children – she was 12 years old and he was 14. As newlyweds years later they had a young daughter and no education beyond high school. Consequently, money was tight.
“I was a waitress at a local coffee shop and my husband worked at a fast food restaurant,” Perron said, “and it was tough.”
The Perrons were using various assistance programs to get by and one day, as she sat in an office waiting to renew one of them with her daughter in her lap, Perron decided: “I don’t want my life to be like this. I just realized my life wasn’t going to get better unless I made a change.”
That change was to seek an education. In the office she saw a poster advertising the Community College of Rhode Island and Perron applied as soon as she could, taking her first class in 1994.
She often took only one class per semester, working full time and helping to raise her daughter, but the rewards of education soon became apparent: As she increased her marketable job skills with college courses such as accounting, she was able to obtain a better job as an office manager for a small wholesale distribution company.
This new job had a higher salary and Perron worked her way up over the years to be the company’s marketing manager.
However, money was still tight and she found herself working long hours. Perron eventually had to put school on hold when she and her husband bought a house and both needed to work as much as possible to pay for it.
Perron didn’t like walking away from her education, “so I made it a mission four years ago to finish school,” she said.
She returned to CCRI in 2008, once again often only able to take one course at a time. She is graduating this semester with an Associate of Science degree in computer programming and a 3.9 GPA.
But the greatest reward came when she found an unexpected opportunity through a Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society newsletter: the chance to finally work with NASA.
Perron applied to the National Community College Aerospace Scholars program, a highly selective program that brings applicants from all over the country to the Johnson Space Center in Houston or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to work with NASA engineers on a mock space exploration project.
“It was a shock,” Perron said about discovering the program. “I thought I wouldn’t qualify.”
Perron worked for approximately six months on extra assignments for the program, budgeting and planning a mock mission to Mars while managing her other academic, work and family responsibilities.
Based on these assignments, Perron was one of 92 community college students and the first from Rhode Island selected to visit the NASA facility.
She attended earlier this month. “I couldn’t believe that I was there,” she said. “It was great to be in the same room with these other students I had so much in common with.”
Perron worked with a small team of students, including engineers and computer programmers, to build a model robotic planetary rover.
“We worked like crazy for three days but every one of us felt so fortunate to be there,” Perron said. “I thought this was the best thing I could have ever done. I never thought I could do it.”
Perron graduated on May 18 with a degree in Computer Programming and a 3.9 GPA. Her NASA experience inspired her to continue her education in the sciences, perhaps pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering.
“It would be such a shame to stop now,” she said.
Perron said she hopes her story will be an inspiration to anyone else who thinks he or she can’t get an education or pursue career goals at any age.
“Anybody should be anything they want to be,” she said.