Sunday, January 27, 2019

Cuyamaca College student selected for prestigious NASA program

Rita Koda
Rita Koda was working as an insurance agent when she decided to give school another try. Good thing she did. Now in her second year at Cuyamaca College, Koda, 23, has been selected to take part in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars experience at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena this summer.
“I was pretty surprised,” said the physics major. “It was a very last-minute thing for me in filling out the application. But I’m really excited and really looking forward to it.”
Koda recently completed a five-week, online NASA course that included researching the Evolvable Mars Campaign, taking part in live video chats with NASA experts and completing several mission design challenges. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Koda will spend four days meeting with NASA engineers and researchers, touring NASA’s Pasadena facility, learning about internship opportunities and working with a team responsible for developing and testing a prototype rover.

Koda’s instructors aren’t the least bit surprised she was chosen to take part in the prestigious endeavor.

“She’s a wonderful person and a well-rounded student who works hard and is deserving of this honor,” said biology instructor Christina Burnet.

“We are so proud of her,” added chemistry professor Laurie LeBlanc. “She is serious about her studies and her future, and you can always find her in the middle of a group of other great students.”

Koda’s road to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been a bit serpentine. Upon graduating from El Cajon Valley High School, she enrolled as an art major at Grossmont College, but dropped out after two semesters. “I was going to college because you were supposed to go to college,” she said. “In fact, however, I was clueless about what I wanted to do.”

Leaving her studies behind, Koda embarked on what she thought may be an insurance industry career, working first as a customer service representative and then as an insurance salesperson.

It wasn’t her passion. So, in the summer of 2017, she returned to school, this time at Cuyamaca College. At the Rancho San Diego campus, Koda is surrounding by ample support provided by Cuyamaca’s STEM Cohort, a group of approximately 55 students who take part in peer mentoring, workshops, field trips and more. Koda also volunteers with Cuyamaca College STEM students in restoration and cleanup work throughout the region.

“I feel like I’m part of a family here,” Koda said. “Everyone in the cohort has the same interests and is on the same pathway as you. The faculty is involved in your success, and there is ample support. When they find out you’re a STEM major, they’re especially willing to help you out.”

Koda sees herself graduating within a couple years, then transferring to UC San Diego or San Diego State University. “I’m still exploring my career options, and this experience will go a long way in helping me discover what’s out there,” she said.

NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars initiative is funded in part by the Minority University Research and Education Program, which is committed to engaging students from underrepresented and underserved communities into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and opening doors to future careers at NASA.