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Dream Big, but Have a Backup Plan

Spring 2011


Ginger Kerrick
Flight Director, NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ginger Kerrick Commencement Speech

December 2010

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Thank you Chancellor Hance, President Bailey, distinguished administration, and faculty, friends, family, and most importantly, the graduating class of 2010 for allowing me to speak to you today.

I met Chancellor Hance about a year ago when I gave a talk in his leadership class. Last month he called and asked if I would like to be the commencement speaker at this weekend's graduation. I thought he had the wrong number! But once I confirmed, I said, "You know, I have never given a commencement speech before. What am I supposed to say? What do you recommend I share with the students today?"

To which he replied, "Why don't you tell them about your big dream and how you had a really big dream for your life, but then that didn't go so well and so you had to come up with a backup dream? And that backup dream was pretty much as good as that great first dream. Why don't you tell them about that?"

I said, "That is an excellent idea." So that is what I want to talk to you about today. I want to tell you about some of the dreams I had, some of the challenges that I faced along the way in hopes that I may offer some lessons for your lives.

If your story is like mine, some of you may be sitting here thinking, "Wow, it took a heck of a lot for me to get here. I can't believe I finally made it." My Texas Tech story actually began back in my freshman year when I was at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). I had decided, having graduated from high school in El Paso that I was too sheltered to go off on my own. My mom kept a really tight rein on me. In fact, so much so that she is still here sitting in the audience today.

I started off at UTEP, but I knew I wanted to transfer. I knew I wanted to come to Texas Tech in my junior year. My dad was a student here, my granddaddy went here, and I knew that if I went to Tech I could possibly take advantage of an established co-op program with NASA. So I started writing letters. Now, some of you may be thinking, "Letter? What's that? Can't you text?" No. At the time, we didn't have texting or cell phones, or even e-mail. That's how old I am. So I started writing letters to the chairman of the physics department here at Texas Tech. After we exchanged a few letters, he suggested I come for a visit. So I grabbed my mom, and we drove to Texas Tech to talk to Dr. Walter Borst about the potential of transferring. I explained to him what my financial situation was. My mom was raising the four of us on her own. I didn't have a college fund. So I was going to UTEP on a scholarship and a job. Thus, I asked Dr. Borst if he might be able to help me find scholarship support and a job that would help me out. I also told him about my dream: to become an astronaut and work at NASA. Dr. Borst had faith in me, and by the time our visit was over he found me two scholarships and two part-time jobs. So I was able to transfer to Texas Tech in the fall of 1989.

That fall was my first semester away from home. I had a really, really good time. I was out with my friends until all hours of the night. I was dating. My mom wouldn't let me date even when I was at UTEP, so oh I was living it up. Now, I may have had a good time, but my grade point average (GPA) did not! I had a 4.0 GPA at UTEP. But, when you transfer from one university to another, you start from scratch—grade-wise. And, my new start from scratch GPA was a 2.7, after the first semester. I had never seen a 2.7 in my life. I called my mom. I didn't know what to do. I went to the physics department chair, my head hung in shame. This man who had great faith in me, who had taken a chance on me—I had to go and explain why the heck I had a 2.7 GPA. I really didn't have an explanation aside from my being an idiot. But I was only an idiot for one semester.

That was enough to wake me up, because I no longer had that solid financial plan for my schooling here. I had to go out and get a third part-time job. I worked three part-time jobs for the remainder of my undergraduate days until I found myself sitting where you are today. I had finally gotten my GPA to a respectable 3.3, which was good, because at a 2.7, NASA was having no part of me. They wanted to make sure that I got my GPA back up to a 3.2. So by the time that I graduated, I called NASA where I had an internship lined up.

Actually, I had applied for about 200 different jobs, but nobody knew what to do with a physicist with a bachelor's degree. So I couldn't line up a job, but I did have the NASA internship and plans to go to graduate school at another university, where I was thinking about studying astronomy. Or so I thought.

I went off to my summer internship at NASA, but this internship was a one-shot deal. In reality, I didn't want a one-shot deal at NASA. I wanted a permanent position there. So for the whole summer, I worked a little bit extra, meeting people outside of the organization that hired me, and by the end of the summer I had letters of recommendation. In fact, I dragged my boss with me to the co-op office after pleading, "You need to tell them to convert me from an intern to a co-op." And he said, "OK." Thus, he asked, and they said, "OK." You never know until you ask! So, by the end of the summer I was converted over to a co-op. Why was that important? Well, it guaranteed that I could come back for another semester, and then when I graduated with my master's degree, NASA would more likely give me a preferential hiring chance.

So I thought, "Alright I have all my NASA stuff lined up, now I am going to run off to graduate school." And, I did go to graduate school at a university that will remain nameless, but it took me only about three weeks when I said, "Oh, no. I do not want to be here. I don't want to study astronomy."

I met some astronomers and observed what they did every day, and I said to myself, "Oh, no. I don't want to do that." Yeah, I could have checked out the astronomy field beforehand, but I didn't. I had to learn the lesson the hard way. But that's OK. I didn't want to be stuck there, so I called the Tech physics department, because that's what you do when you're in trouble! This time it was Dr. Charles Myles who was the chair of physics, and I said, "I am so sorry. Please take me back. Please, please take me back to Texas Tech."

He said, "Sure, we'll take you back." He secured a research grant and a part-time job for me. So I was able to come back and finish up the first year of my graduate studies at Tech. I went to NASA for a second summer session, and then came back the following fall to Tech.

It was now the fall of 1993. I had just defended my master's thesis. I was excited, anticipating my graduating in December, just like you are today. And, I was looking forward to January—starting at NASA in Houston. Well, it didn't quite work out that way.

In late November, I got a letter from NASA that noted, "We regret to inform you that President Clinton has put a hiring freeze on all government agencies. So we will be unable to hire you upon graduation in December."

I thought, "You have got to be kidding me." All this work: getting through my undergraduate program; I got scholarships; I got jobs; my GPA went down, but I brought it back up; and, now the president is standing in my way? For a moment I considered a small march on Washington, but then I thought that's not going to get me anywhere. So I thought, "What can I do, what can I do? This is something I have no control over." However, what I did know was that the hiring freeze was not going to last forever. At some point the government was going to lift the hiring freeze and NASA would be hiring "X" number of people. So I just had to make sure that I was part of that "X."

As time proceeded, I began thinking, "What can I do to set myself apart?" Well, I knew that NASA hires people in cooperative programs or co-ops preferentially, at least active co-ops. But, since I had graduated with my physics master's, I was no longer an active co-op.

I had saved some money, and so I decided to enroll in the Tech MBA program for the spring 1994 term in case the hiring freeze went through the spring. So I had that lined up.

But, over the holidays I began thinking that if I was just competing against the December graduates that was one thing, but now this hiring freeze was rolling over into the spring, thereby making it possible that I might have to compete against December and spring graduates. I called NASA and asked them about how many people were on their prospective hiring list. They said 60. My thought: "Great, there's no way they're going to reverse the hiring freeze and hire 60 people. I have to find something to set myself apart." I racked my brain, but I couldn't think of anything to do. Finally, in a last ditch effort I thought, "I'll be annoying. I can be annoying." I was taking a chance here, because sometimes you can be annoying and that throws you out of the boat. What I decided to do was to call weekly, so at 1 p.m. on the first Friday in January I called the co-op office. "Hello, my name is Ginger Kerrick, I'm a co-op from Texas Tech University calling to inquire about the status of the hiring freeze."

The voice at the NASA end replied, "Oh yes, we will let you know when the situation changes. There is no need to call us. We will keep you posted on that." Next Friday and 1 p.m. rolls around, "Hello . . ." Thereafter, I called the co-op office every Friday at 1 p.m.—all of January, all of February, all of March. April rolls around, and I'm looking at my bank account and thinking, "Man, I need to go out and get a real job. I don't have enough money to be doing this."

So I called NASA again and they said, "No, no hope." So I took a job in Lubbock at Texas Instruments. I started working there on a Monday. At 1 p.m. the following Friday I was literally hiding underneath my desk hoping nobody spotted my trying to call NASA. But this time when the NASA person picked up the phone, I detected that I was on a speakerphone, and there was giggling in the background. I was intrigued, but I gave them my little speech and waited.

A woman's voice came back, "Well Ginger, we've been waiting for you to call. We got permission this morning to hire 12 of the 60 graduating co-ops, and you are one of the 12."

I responded, "Yeah! Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Then something occurred to me, and I questioned: "Just out of curiosity, you had 12 positions and 60 applicants. Did you review the qualifications of each of the applicants and try to best match them with the 12 open positions, or were you just tired of me calling you on Friday?" The lady responded back, "Honey, you're never gonna know." And so to this day, I have no idea why they hired me, and truthfully, I don't care.

So here I was: I earned my graduate degree; I was in the door at NASA; but, that wasn't my entire dream. I wanted to be an astronaut. The minimum requirements for candidacy as an astronaut are a master's degree and one year of technical experience. So I started at NASA in May of 1994. In May of 1995, I marched my little astronaut application form down to the astronaut selection office and handed it to the office manager who happened to be the uncle of a guy I worked with at one of my jobs in the Texas Tech physics department. So I knew him. I said, "Duane, here's my application. Thank you very much. Looking forward to it. Thanks for your consideration." At this point, I was thinking, "I'm 26 years old. I'm going to get the world's coolest rejection letter. And I'll frame it."

But oddly, five months later I get a call from NASA with the message, "Out of the 3,000 applications that we reviewed for this year's astronaut class, we have decided to interview 120, and you are among the 120."

I was sitting there going, "You have got to be kidding me. I am 26 years old. I haven't been more than two years out of graduate school, and I am this close to reaching my dream." I was really excited. I called everyone in the Tech physics department. I called my mom. I called all of my friends.

A couple of months passed before the interview, which was only an hour long, but I did really well. Subsequently, I went through psychological, physical, and medical tests. They found out that I wasn't crazy, and as a former athlete, I did well on the physical tests. So I was feeling really good about myself. But then the results of the medical tests came in, and I learned something that would change the course of my life. During these tests, NASA did a CAT-scan and found I had kidney stones. I didn't know I had them. I had never passed one. But, as soon as I saw those little white dots on the CAT-scan screen, I just broke out into tears. I just started bawling, because I knew that the ability of your body to form kidney stones (not the fact you had them and had them cleaned out) is a lifetime disqualification from astronaut candidacy.

I don't even know how I made it home that day. When I reached home, I was crying. I called my mom. I didn't know what to do. I was 26 years old and being an astronaut was all I ever wanted to do. I thought, "What am I supposed to do now?"

After a few days of wallowing in complete misery, I said to myself, "Alright, you have got to snap yourself out of this. You have two options. You can sit here and continue to feel sorry for yourself and cry and make those circles under your eyes worse, or you can suck it up. You can be strong and figure out how to make the best of the situation." So I chose the second option.

At the time when all this was happening I had a job teaching astronauts that would fly on the (International) Space Station. As I was sitting at home trying to figure what in the world to do, part of me was thinking, "Do I really want to go back to work on Monday and face these astronauts, the very job I wanted, and deal with them on a day-to-day basis? Wouldn't that be like torturing myself every day?" And then I realized, no, that's the negative Ginger talking. Let's see if we can find the positive Ginger. I said to myself, "Look at this from a different perspective. What if you think of the fact that you are teaching these astronauts? Every single astronaut that goes on Space Station will have to go through you for a class, and they will be taking a little bit of something that you have conveyed to them up into space. So it would be like a little piece of you would be going up with each one of the astronauts."

I thought, "OK. I can sell that to myself." And, it was a sales pitch. Every morning I would wake up miserable and crying, but I would say to myself, "No, no, no. Let's look at this from the positive side." And after a few months I didn't have to remind myself every morning. It started to become natural for me. What's funny is that the more natural that attitude became for me, the more doors seemed to open with hidden treasures that I never thought possible. For example, a couple of years after I was disqualified from astronaut candidacy, I got an opportunity. There were only two people that were given this chance and it was to provide operational and instructional support for the first crew that would fly onboard the International Space Station. I did that for almost four years. If Space Station crewmembers were in Houston for training, I was in Houston for training. If they were in Florida looking at one of the modules that we were going to launch on board the shuttle, I was with them inside that module. If they were in Moscow, if they were in Kazakhstan, I was there. So every class that they took, every trip that they took to see hardware, I was right there alongside them. So I got my astronaut training—everything but the flying part. I had this unique set of experiences following the Space Station crew around. When they finally flew I supported their mission from mission control in Moscow, and when they landed, yet another door opened. I was offered a new position, and it was a capcom, short for capsule communicator. Basically it's the person in mission control who talks to the crew. There is only one voice that goes up to the crew. Up until the time it was offered to me, an astronaut had always held the position. And the only reason they offered it to me was because I had had that unique set of first experiences with the first Space Station crew. So I took the job. I was nervous at first. But I did it for four years. And, I really, really enjoyed it.

The capcom in mission control sits right beside the flight director. So I began watching flight directors, watching what they do running the ship, and I thought, "I could do that." So I applied, thinking, "I don't know if I have a chance." But I did apply, and in 2005, I was selected as a flight director. I didn't know anything about it before I got into mission control, but in the history of the program there have been 80 flight directors. And I was one of them! As the chancellor stated earlier there have been 500 astronauts. So I could have been an astronaut, but now I am part of a more elite group.

Although my life did not take the course that I thought it would when I was sitting where you are sitting today, I am really, really happy that it didn't. I have enjoyed every set of experiences I have had. I have gotten to do things that no one has ever gotten to do before. I am really happy with where I have been and where I am now. Because of that experience I am really happy and hopeful for the future.

As you start the next phase of your journey, I hope you will remember my story. Life is not going to go exactly as you have planned. There are going to be bumps in the road. Some of those bumps you can just plow through and keep going on your path. But some of those bumps are going to be too big to overcome. They will be beyond your control. They will be your kidney stones. You're going to need to divert course and go around them and go on a new path. That's OK. When you go on that new path, I want you to be open-minded, because you might be very pleasantly surprised at what lies in store for you. So, dream big but always have a backup plan!

About the Author

Ginger Kerrick is a flight director at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. She is a 1991 (B.S. in physics) and 1993 (M.S. in physics) graduate of Texas Tech University. This paper is based on her December 17 and 18, 2010, commencement addresses to Texas Tech University graduates in Lubbock, Texas.

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