Ginger Kerrick Interview – Being in the STEM* Field
Doesn't Mean You Don't Need Foreign Language
Ginger Kerrick is a STEM professional who can attest to the importance of foreign languages and intercultural competence in her career. She is the first Hispanic female to work as a NASA Flight Director, and she is also a 2016 recipient of the College of Arts & Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award. Hailing from El Paso, Kerrick earned both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in physics at Texas Tech University.
We recently spoke with Kerrick about her career success story, which has been an inspiration to
a whole new generation of students pursuing degrees in STEM. However, it is also clear
that the skills Kerrick uses regularly in her career are rooted in the humanities.
For instance, she is fluent in Russian, a skill she acquired via immersion early in
her career. Since Russia is a primary provider for the International Space Station,
Kerrick needs to be able to communicate in Russian and have an especially good command
of technical vocabulary. Kerrick says that she carries more clout with her Russian
colleagues because she speaks their language. "You need solid technical skills, but
you also need the ability to influence and lead
people in order to get the job done. Knowing how to establish rapport with different people is very important, and that is a strength of mine."
Kerrick spent about four years moving back and forth between Russia, Kazakhstan, and
the U.S. In Russia, she lived and worked in Star City, near Moscow, a place that became
a second home for her. "When it was time to go, I was so sad to leave. The people
had been so welcoming. It was a wonderful cultural experience that I wouldn't trade
for anything in the
world." To this day, Kerrick maintains many professional and personal connections in Russia. Her message to people pursuing STEM careers? "The more you can relate to people outside of the U.S., the better! We're not the only smart ones out there, and you will need to connect
with international colleagues and all the innovations going on around the world." This is something Kerrick learned early in her career. She spent 11 weeks at the International Space University, where she met people from all over the world.
"There were 28 different countries represented in my class alone. We did class projects
and organized culture nights together. I made so many good connections there. It was
one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had." Kerrick still keeps in touch
with the people she met 20 years ago at the International Space University. These
people are now her colleagues
in Belgium, Canada, China, Germany, India, Japan, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.
In order to learn Russian, Kerrick attended classes taught in the target language and worked with a bilingual manual in order to acquire new vocabulary. In the evenings, she hung out with her colleagues to practice putting sentences together and work on her pronunciation. What she learned was this: No matter how much "book study" you do, in order to become fluent in another language you need to jump in there and practice, practice, practice.
Any language learning regrets? "I wish I could also speak German, Italian, and Japanese, since I also work with people who speak those languages."
*STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
Flor Castellanos - BA German, 2013
"During my time at Texas Tech I studied German and Arabic in the CMLL department as
I worked towards a B.A in German. After graduating in December of 2013, I had the
privilege of working full time at the International Cultural Center at Texas Tech
before receiving a
Fulbright to teach English in Thailand. Throughout my grant I had the unique experience to learn about the Thai language, culture, and cultural diplomacy in the region. The richest component of my experience during my grant included the opportunity to co-coordinate and host an international English camp between Thai and Malaysian students, in collaboration with an American Fulbright grantee in Malaysia.
Language studies have taught me to be more empathetic towards people of different cultures
and with different perspectives. Pursuing advancement in my language skills encouraged
me to travel and live abroad for extended periods of time in areas including Europe,
the Middle East, and South East Asia. In doing so, I was able to discover that I am passionate
about people that experience language and culture in a way that differs from mine,
and led to my decision to focus my career goals towards the refugee community.
I am currently a Graduate student in the department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. I'm specializing in Culture and Learning Sciences and hoping to focus my research in the area of trauma and its effects on education within the refugee community. Including its role in the classroom as students work towards integration into a new cultural environment after displacement.
I learned at Texas Tech about the positive impact of languages in understanding a wider
population. So given the population I'll be working with in the future, I will be continuing
my language studies in Arabic. Though I've decided to continue on with Arabic, the
German language will forever hold a special spot in my heart and I take advantage
speaking it whenever I can. It was after all a gateway to where I am now."
This link includes a video capturing my Fulbright project while in Thailand.