MCCC Engineering Student Michelle Quinones Finds Empowerment for Women in STEM through NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Program


West Windsor, N.J. – For Mercer County Community College (MCCC) student Michelle Quinones, breaking into the sciences was not an easy task. While making small talk during a doctor’s appointment, Quinones told her physician that she was studying engineering.

“You don’t look like an engineer,” her doctor said.

“What does an engineer look like?” Quinones clapped back. For much of her life, Quinones has been working to change the perceptions of those around her.

Women in STEM fields are significantly outnumbered by men. By pursuing her engineering education, Quinones is breaking down stereotypes that suggest who can or can’t be a scientist.

Her efforts came to a head this summer, when she attended the virtual NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, during which she realized she belonged in that room of smart, resourceful students.

“During the program one of my advisors said, ‘You deserve to be here,’” Quinones says.

Quinones wasn’t used to receiving positive reinforcement. Though she entered the program with a degree in hand from Union County College (UCC), she had lived on her own since she was 15 years old.

Now 29, Quinones has come a long way. She has taught herself a myriad of skills based on her interests, which include coding, gaming and computer-aided design.

She is also a first-generation college student and was a student at UCC and the New Jersey Institute of Technology before enrolling at Mercer during the summer of 2019.

Quinones says that her support system began to grow when she was registering for MCCC classes.

“Even before I started classes, I received so much help from Student and Academic Advisor Deeanne Smith-Johns and Professor James Maccariella,” Quinones says.

According to Quinones, staff members like Professor Kyle Anderson, her differential equations professor, show great passion for teaching and helping students. She says he played a pivotal role this semester in sparking her interest in pursuing a minor in Mathematics as well.

“They went above and beyond for me,” says Quinones.

Seeing Maccariella’s name in her email inbox became a regular occurrence. Once she started taking classes toward her engineering science degree, Quinones received notes about internships and enrichment programs. She passed on applying to them, thinking they weren’t the right fit for her educational goals.

“The email about the NASA program seemed like the first one to be open to students from any focus,” Quinones says.  Quinones says that she is incredibly pleased to have followed her instincts and applied.

The NCAS program was segmented into two parts. First, students spent time learning and reviewing material about NASA missions and the types of work the aerospace institution does, including space suit and vehicle design.

“I also completed a 10-page research paper,” Quinones says, which highlighted habitat systems and extravehicular activities.

“Something as small as keeping lunar dust out of space suits is so important,” Quinones says.

After passing a series of quizzes, Quinones and her peers moved on to the second part of the program, in which teams of students worked to complete a mock mission. Quinones’ team planned a mission to the moon, organizing everything they would need to reach the lunar surface while working within a realistic NASA budget.

Though the project tested Quinones’ comprehension of various roles at NASA, she says the hardest part was figuring out how to work as a team.

“My teammates lived in four different time zones,” she says. “We had all kinds of deadlines, and everyone’s role depended on the assistance of others.”

Despite her initial misgivings about her fit in the program, Quinones ended up winning her team’s most valuable player award.

Quinones says that the entire NASA experience was eye- opening. Educationally, the program provided her insight into her future goals, which she hopes will include transferring to a four-year school and ultimately entering the professional world of civil engineering.

It also empowered Quinones to use her voice.

“One of the reasons I was afraid to attend the program was that I saw NASA and thought, ‘I’m not good enough,’ Quinones recalls.

“I learned that my voice is important,” Quinones says. “I would encourage every single student – whether you’re in a STEM field or not – to try this experience.”

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Michelle Quinones, was one of three MCCC students to attend the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Program this summer.