Education

Former NASA astronaut shares his secrets to success at new Oak Park summer STEM academy

Former NASA astronaut inaugurates a new Sacramento STEM program

Former NASA astronaut speaks at the University of the Pacific and Sacramento City Unified School District inaugural ceremony to expand University of the Pacific’s STEM program to Sacramento.
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Former NASA astronaut speaks at the University of the Pacific and Sacramento City Unified School District inaugural ceremony to expand University of the Pacific’s STEM program to Sacramento.

A new STEM program just opened for the summer in Oak Park. And it’s astronaut-recommended.

Former NASA astronaut and engineer José Hernández spoke Monday at the inaugural ceremony of the University of the Pacific’s “Reach for the Stars” STEM summer academy, which is expanding to Oak Park after nearly a decade of successful STEM initiatives in Stockton.

The academy in Oak Park was founded in partnership with the Sacramento City Unified School District and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, according to the university.

Monday was the first day of an intense four-week curriculum of science, technology, engineering and math for 50 seventh-graders. The students will attend class from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday through July 19, collaborating on inventive projects of logic, math and engineering such as building toothpick bridges, model catapults, aluminum boats and paper towers, according to teachers Roderick Hampton and Esther Montanez.

Hernández, a Pacific alumnus, met with the children in the morning in the university’s Lecture Hall, and shared with them his five-ingredient recipe to success.

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Former astronaut and American engineer José Hernández taking a picture with Reach for the Stars STEM Academy’s class of 2019 at its inaugural ceremony on Monday, June 24. The academy was founded in partnership with the Sacramento City Unified School District and the Sacramento Municipality Utility District. José Luis Villegas University of the Pacific


First, Hernández said, they have to decide what they want to do in life. Then, recognize how far along they’ve already come toward that goal. And third, find out how to “reach their stars.”

Hernández said he was about their age when he decided he would become an astronaut. He grew up on the east side of Stockton in a immigrant farmworking family. In many ways he was like the academy’s class of 2019: He was passionate about STEM and lived in a historically underserved neighborhood. But he spent his summers in the fields, picking cherries and cucumbers with his father, while Reach for the Stars children will have the opportunity to dedicate their summer to academic work, he said.

“We lived in a two-bedroom, dilapidated old house rental in the east side of Stockton,” Hernández said, “the worst part of Stockton.” At the time, he said he couldn’t have been further from his goal.

He was 10 when he watched the moon walk of Apollo 17 with his father, he told the children. He watched it upside-down from the roof, holding the antenna of his family’s outmoded black and white television to keep the picture clear. But he knew then that one day he would become an astronaut too.

So Hernández stayed in school and always worked twice as hard as he was told, mixing into the batch of his success the fourth and fifth ingredients: school and perseverance. He said he was always proactive and strategic.

“NASA rejected me 11 times,” he said. “Then I became a pilot, became a scuba diver, learned a third language … and I got to go to space.”

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Former astronaut and American engineer José Hernández sitting in the audience at the inaugural ceremony of the University of the Pacific’s Oak Park ‘Reach for the Stars’ STEM summer academy on Monday, June 24. The academy was founded in partnership with the Sacramento City Unified School District and the Sacramento Municipality Utility District. José Luis Villegas University of the Pacific

Hernandéz said he created the foundation Reaching for the Stars, an initiative focused on inspiring students to pursue STEM professions that provides funding for the academy, just before his first mission in space. Nine years ago, he designed the curriculum with San Antonio’s Texas Pre-Freshman Engineering Program and gathered the initial $20,000 needed to open the very first Reach for the Stars STEM Academy in Stockton.

Monday, he said he was eager to announce the expansion of the program to Oak Park and hopes that the new Reach for the Stars Academy will help students prepare for college and gather all the ingredients necessary to reach their goals.

“We want your minds focused on staying in school, graduating from high school and going further,” said Nancy Shaw, operational administrator of the academy’s parent initiative, The Tomorrow Project. “One of these days you may be the doctor that we have to go to if we have a headache or if we need an operation, you may be the dentist that we go to … you may be the next José Hernández.”

The Sacramento Municipality Utility District is offering the program free of charge to Oak Park families through its Sustainable Communities Initiative, according to University of the Pacific. The academy is also part of SMUD’s Promise Zone collaborative, an initiative to bring economic, social and environmental improvements to a 22-mile “promise zone” in downtown Sacramento, parts of North Sacramento, Del Paso Heights, Oak Park and parts of south Sacramento.

“We are committed to this program,” said SMUD Director of Sustainable Communities José Bodipo Memba at the event. “We are committed to this community and we are committed to you.”

Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.
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