Students Kristine Roy, Kayla Segner and Kenneth McNeil were accepted into the NASA Pathways Intern Employment Program.
The odds of four Thomas Nelson students earning internships with NASA Langley must be astronomical, especially when a nationwide search was conducted to fill the five openings. However, two people familiar with the process explain there are down-to-earth explanations.
“They’re (NASA) really interested in our students and our program because they take classes like hydraulics and pneumatics with the labs,” said Julie Young, who joined the College in 2007 and is head of its engineering program. “And they do the hands-on work as part of the program.”
Keith Harris is the co-chair of the Technician Advisory Board at NASA Langley. He’s been involved in the NASA Pathways Intern Employment Program for about five years, is a Thomas Nelson graduate (1982) and did internships with NASA Langley while at the College.
“The fundamentals are very strong at Thomas Nelson, working in Julie’s program. We’ve been very successful in working with them,” he said. “The most qualified candidates did come from Thomas Nelson.”
The Pathways Program is a three-step journey to full-time employment, as long as certain requirements are met along the way. Following the internship is an apprenticeship, and then the potential employee completes requirements to become a journeyman. The complete process takes three years and about 8,000 hours of on-the-job training.
“This is a career move. The Pathways Program is literally a pathway to a full-time job,” Young said. “This is the best way to get a job there.”
The Thomas Nelson students selected to begin Pathway internships this summer are Kristine Roy, Kayla Segner and Kenneth McNeil. David Tucker, whose first internship with NASA Langley was in 2019, just completed his fifth internship with the organization and is ready to start No. 6.
Roy’s internship begins June 7, and as often is the case with the program, is not sure what she’ll be doing first. The students will rotate through a number of departments. The two branches that interest her most are the systems integration and test branch, and the experimental technology branch.
“I’m really big on environmental betterment, sustainable energy and doing things and constructing products and technology that are innovative but not detrimental to the earth,” she said. “NASA fits into that with a lot of their projects. They are really big with solar and nuclear energy, like sustainable energies.”
That stems from combining her personal interests with a career. She doesn’t eat meat, and tries to incorporate things into her daily life that are environmentally friendly as she sees how a lot of our habits deplete the earth.
“It’s not necessarily the most healthy,” she said of our way of life. “And just seeing that I can apply this to what I’m interested in on a daily life. How can I contribute more to the future through my career?”
She has one more semester at Thomas Nelson to earn an associate degree in mechanical engineering technology. She hopes to go on to Old Dominion University. It’s been quite a journey.
Roy was born in Norfolk, and after graduating from high school, attended VCU for a year and a half before entering the work force. Then at the age of 26, she joined the Air Force, and spent four years stationed at Langley. She’s still in the reserves, and was working while taking classes at Thomas Nelson. She often took classes on her lunch breaks and in the evenings. Her professors were understanding and accommodating, which impressed her.
“A lot of other schools weren’t like that,” she said. “I found that surprising, that a good amount of my classes were in the evening or around lunch time. My teachers and professors were flexible enough if I had to be a little bit late … they would help me.”
She’s very happy with the education and experiences she had at Thomas Nelson.
“Yes, definitely,” she said. “I just wish I had done this sooner.”
McNeil grew up in Bridgewater, Mass., and is another military veteran. He joined the Army after high school and was stationed at Fort Eustis from 2012-17, where he was a watercraft engineer. After getting out of the Army, he worked at Jefferson Lab and started working on his degree in mechanical engineering technology. He expects to be done at Thomas Nelson in about 18 months.
He too starts his internship June 7, and his first rotation is in the systems integration and test branch. He’s very interested in NASA’s Artemis program and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. He said he’s been drawn to building things or taking them apart since he was a kid.
“I was always curious. After 6 ½ years in the Army, I turned wrenches the whole time, and learned how much I loved it,” he said.
Segner’s internship begins Aug. 30, and she’ll be working as a mechanical engineering technician, although she doesn’t have a specific role. She’s working on her associate degree in mechanical engineering at Thomas Nelson and a bachelor’s in graphic design from Liberty University. She’s on schedule to complete both by the end of 2021.
“I’m looking at product design, and design-specific jobs,” she said of her career goals.
She was born and raised in Smithfield, and after graduating from high school in 2017, spent two years at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg.
“I’ve gone through a lot of dream career paths through the years,” she said, adding engineering was always a field of interest.
As a creative person, she says engineering is a great way to combine her math abilities and skills with a creative setting.
“I went to Thomas Nelson and I discovered I liked the design section of CAD drawing,” she said. “I’ve become very passionate about it.”
She participated in NASA Langley’s STEM Takes Flight program through ODU in summer 2020, but that was online. She’s looking forward to in-person experiences.
Five or 10 years down the road, she “would love to be inventing, as broad as that answer is. I’ve kind of gone into design and engineering because I like building things and I like designing things.”
Tucker graduated from Thomas Nelson in May 2020 with an associate degree in mechanical engineering technology. This is his first time as a Pathway intern. He also starts June 7, and will spend the first four months, at least, in the Mission Assurance Branch.
“The work in this branch will range from quality assurance, metrology, the testing of flight hardware, receipt inspection, and the assembly, disassembly, and integration of flight hardware,” Tucker said. “Contamination control and protection against electrostatic discharge are key factors in this branch as well.”
He’s not sure if he will be assigned to another branch or continue in this one after four months. However, following a year in this program, he will spend three years as an apprentice and then be a certified NASA technician.
For Young, she’s just as excited as her students are about the possibilities.
“It’s like from there go anywhere,” she said, noting another former student earned an internship at Kennedy Space Center a few years ago. “It just opens so many doors. For a young person, that’s so exciting to me. I’m excited for them all.”
Young is constantly urging her students to apply for these internships, but they are never optimistic.
“They don’t think that they’re going to make it,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, I’m just a little student at Thomas Nelson Community College.’”
Those little students are doing big things, thanks in part to Young.
“This is just another thing I’m going to keep promoting because we all start some place,” she said.