Advice for disheartened students

When students come to my office or meet virtually with me seeking advice and mentorship about their academic and professional careers, they sometimes have misperceptions about what it takes to succeed. With that can come a sense of paralysis that, thankfully, they can move through if they use the discomfort in a way that leads to action.

As their first test scores and grades roll in, some students express fear that they are not smart enough for a first-tier university and a career in aerospace engineering. Their math skills might indeed be lacking compared to other students here at UT Austin, so they question whether or not they belong. I share with them that for high school I attended the Captain Pedro Maria Ochoa Morales military boarding school in Los Teques, Venezuela. Although my curriculum was science-focused, I never saw calculus. The most advanced math I saw was trigonometry and algebra. Despite that, I was able to navigate through an undergraduate aerospace engineering degree program by staying up late at night doing problems, no doubt missing the finer details but managing to get through it.

Other students express remorse that their GPAs are less than perfect, say in the 3.0 range. They’re wondering if their paths to graduate school are all but over. I tend to hear this and chuckle, because to their surprise, I was a “B” student at best. My lack of self-confidence was my biggest enemy and, of course, back then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many respects, I continue to struggle with self-confidence to this day. As an undergrad student, I had bought into the narrative that I didn’t look, walk, sound, or think like an engineer, whatever that meant. I counsel students to have confidence. My own undergraduate GPA was a 3.2, and if I were judged solely on GPA, I would not have been seen as graduate school material.

Digging a little deeper with students, I’ve discovered that many of them are as smart as their 4.0 GPA counterparts. It’s just that they are oversubscribed with service activities like being in a gazillion clubs and groups, and volunteering many hours a week. Moreover, many underrepresented minorities have to hold jobs while going to school and this also exerts a toll on their academic achievements. While being involved in the community and clubs is moving and commendable, it works against their purpose, because academia weighs academic excellence — defined by grades and so-called scholarly work — over such activities. Once I can get these students to drop 18 of their 20 clubs ­— an exaggeration but not by much ­­— they unsurprisingly tend to do much better.

Of course, neither I nor anyone can guarantee success for all students. My strategy as a role model is to inspire students to find out for themselves what they want to do and whether they want to do what is required to get there.

Then there are the military veterans and older people who are considering attending college as a STEM major. While we like to think of our American education system as focused on STEM regardless of age, in reality, the system is geared toward young people, not those who are older and possibly looking for a career change. As Master Yoda said to then “young” Skywalker, “too old to begin the training.” That is sometimes the spoken or unspoken mindset. I call BS on this by welcoming veterans and older people. I began undergraduate school at 23 years old, after all, following four years as an enlistee in the U.S. Air Force and some soul searching at home. Arriving at Embry-Riddle in Arizona, my academic adviser advised me against aerospace engineering. It was made clear to me that if I tried this, I’d almost certainly fail. I’m not sure if Yoda actually meant to inspire Skywalker, but I don’t think my adviser meant to inspire me. Regardless, I stepped up to the challenge.

Looming over everything for some students is the question of which career goal they should pursue. Many students, understandably, have not decided that. They sometimes ask me how I knew what I wanted to do so early. I let them know that in fact I did not know early, and that I eventually had to apply abductive reasoning to the problem. Instead of picking a career somewhat arbitrarily, I listed all the possibilities and then used evidence and my experience to remove the things I knew I did not want to do. Astrodynamics and research are what survived, so going to grad school had to be my path.

The question was how to set myself up to do that, given that I was not an academic star. Graduate school at a first-tier research university is all about, well, research. To be attractive to one of them, one must show evidence, inter alia, of being excellent at research. So, as an undergrad, I got into the NASA Space Grant program and got my research accepted at a major professional conference. It’s there that I impressed my future doctoral adviser, the late George Born, who directed the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research at the University of Colorado Boulder.

This led to my dream job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, where I became a spacecraft navigator in the Inner Planet Navigation Group, working on a handful of Mars missions, and built my career on sifting through data to infer models describing the movements of space objects for improved trajectory prediction. This foundation led to my work in space situational awareness and space traffic management, and now space environmentalism.

So, I was perhaps the last person one would have expected to become an academic at a top-tier university. I am proof that students can become what they want and do a great many things that both create knowledge and create solutions to humanity’s problems. It takes work and dedication to get there, no doubt, but it does not take perfection.

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About Moriba Jah

Moriba Jah is an astrodynamicist, space environmentalist and associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. An AIAA fellow and MacArthur fellow, he’s also chief scientist of startup Privateer Space.

Advice for disheartened students