When it comes to my career, the foundation and bulk of my professional experience has been built on space and aeronautics. My three decades with NASA were truly amazing — I became the first woman director of NASA Langley Research Center, I managed the International Space Station (ISS) Research Program at the Johnson Space Center, and I worked on 38 Space Shuttle and ISS missions in various leadership roles. But the next chapter of my story will involve applying what I learned at NASA to higher education.
NASA & the University of North Texas System
NASA and the University of North Texas System have more in common than you think. Both are facing change and disruptive forces, and both are embracing the new world. Both are stronger with collaboration and partnerships. Both have missions that take your breath away — NASA’s discoveries change our textbooks and UNT System students, armed with a degree and the knowledge that comes with it is poised to change the world.
Take 20-year old Alejandra for example. She will become the first member of her family to graduate from college when she receives her bachelor’s degree from UNT Dallas this May.
Alejandra was born in Mexico and her parents made their way to the US when she was only 3 years old. Both her parents have worked as restaurant servers since coming to America, and often they relieved each other on shifts so one parent could spend time with their precocious young daughter.
Despite the challenges associated with parents from another country with limited education and linguistic skills, Alejandra quickly found success in grade school and was clearly gifted — especially in STEM subjects. With the support of both her parents and mentors along the way, Alejandra blossomed into the valedictorian of Harmony Science Academy.
College needed to be in her future. But how?
College needed to be in her future. But how? The greatest challenge for Alejandra, and millions of others in America like her, is how to pay for college. Her parents’ restaurant earnings were just enough to support the family’s day-to-day life. Certainly, they couldn’t add the expense of college tuition. Also, Alejandra’s parents relied on her to help care for her young sisters. They couldn’t afford for her to leave.
Enter UNT Dallas
As Alejandra considered her options, she heard from the newest 4-year university program in Dallas-Ft. Worth, and the only public university within Dallas city limits. Through UNTD’s Presidential Scholarship Program, Alejandra was awarded a full scholarship to UNT Dallas that didn’t just cover tuition, but also provided mentors. And because UNT Dallas was located close to home and offered block scheduling, Alejandra could continue to live with her parents, help watch her sisters, and work part-time. Fast-forward three years down the line and Alejandra is a star at UNT Dallas. She participates in a work-study program with the university’s Office of Advancement and will graduate with honors this spring.
Recently I told Alejandra’s story to an audience at the Dallas Regional Chamber’s annual state of higher education meeting, and I wanted to introduce her to the crowd at the Westin Galleria. However, Alejandra wasn’t available. She was in fact in New York City to visit Columbia University, where she plans to attend graduate school next fall. She is our first Ivy Leaguer from UNT Dallas!
Students like Alejandra, who otherwise might fall through the cracks without an affordable university in their hometown, are the reason UNT Dallas was created. I can relate to her story personally, because I also came from modest resources in Gainesville, Florida, and changed my pathway by earning a degree from my hometown at the University of Florida.
I was the first in my family to go to college as well. And like Alejandra, I commuted from home, lacking the necessary funds for a dorm room or meal plan. I worked throughout high school and college, and I managed to pay tuition. Thanks to the university’s career center, I landed an internship with NASA that helped me graduate in the top 10 percent of my class in electrical engineering, debt-free, and with multiple job offers.
Like Alejandra, I didn’t fall through the cracks, and education presented me with opportunities that otherwise would not have been available to me. Using my college education as a launch pad, my life has been one of learning and experiencing and making a difference everywhere I can. And that’s why I’m here in North Texas.
Bridging Gaps Scholarship Program
What discoveries have we missed because we aren’t reaching all students and giving them opportunities? Young minds deserve the opportunity to earn an education, and I’m committed to helping more first-generation students like Alejandra — like me — go to college. That’s why I’ve created the UNT System’s new “Bridging Gaps Scholarship Program,” a program that will benefit first-generation students at UNT, UNT Dallas, and UNT Health Science Center. You can learn more about my signature scholarship program here.
A recent study shows just one in three millennials in Dallas-Fort Worth has a college degree. Contrast that with the Bay Area or Boston, where more than half of its residents between the ages of 25-34 have a bachelor’s degree, and it’s clear we have work to do in North Texas. But stories like Alejandra’s, and stories like mine, show us how important it is to take this work seriously — not just for the future of our young people here in North Texas, but also for the continued economic prosperity of our region.
At the UNT System we’re up for the challenge. What about you?
Lesa Roe is Chancellor of the University of North Texas System. Listen to her monthly podcast, co-hosted with FOX 4’s Shannon Murray, at https://soundcloud.com/untsystem.