From the Pacific islands to NASA

Transferring Lessons Learned Abroad to America’s Leading Aerospace Agency

By Alyssa Kaewwilai (Sāmoa, 2019)

            This past year I have been graced with more amazing, life-changing opportunities than I could have ever imagined. Through the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and the Gettysburg College Global Engagement Office, I was given the resources and support needed to study abroad in a nation I had previously merely dreamed of traveling to – the Pacific islands of Sāmoa. Imagine my joy when I was accepted to the School of International Training (SIT) program, Social and Environmental Change in Oceania, where I could fully adopt and embrace the Pacific culture as my own for an entire 4-5 months! As a Reach the World U.S Student Ambassador, I was also given the incredible opportunity to mentor a fifth-grade class in a Spanish immersion school during my travels to Sāmoa alongside excursions to Hawai’i and Fiji. The momentum of opportunities and adventures continues when I was greeted back to the United States with an internship offer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as an Earthdata GIS Software Engineering intern, an offer I used to believe was only obtainable in my wildest dreams!

As a first-generation and disadvantaged Thai-American female pursuing a STEM degree, I realized that I suddenly had a sea of opportunity ahead of me. What I didn’t expect, however, was how the abundance of lessons I learned abroad was incredibly applicable to my summer internship at NASA. These lessons have reshaped my engagement and perspectives of the world and everyday work life:

  1. Problem solving using limited resources

            I was faced with a multitude of challenges abroad in an environment that I was not familiar with. Similarly, I had to approach these situations from perspectives I did not use to viewing problems. I can still distinctly remember my first day after class when I needed to board the bus and find my way home, I was utterly and completely lost and without cell phone reception. Not only had I forgotten the Sāmoan name of the second bus I needed to transfer to but street addresses are also oftentimes not as referred to as reference as they are in America (not that I would have remembered my address anyhow!) After a prolonged period of panic, I began to calm myself down before evaluating my situation from a third-person perspective. That was when I began to think logically and recall familiar surroundings near my home. Piecing this information together with the kind advice of locals, I was miraculously able to navigate my way back to my host family in the Alafua Village.  

At NASA, I was oftentimes assigned mini projects where I needed to convert certain file types such as NetCDF and HDF files in order to make them compatible with various software and computer systems. I also used new, unfamiliar programs and Python scripts to manage satellite databases and information. Initially, I would feel small waves of nervousness whenever my attempts to complete a task did not work within the first few trials. However, utilizing my skills of problem solving which I obtained abroad I was able to invoke the help of both discovered online resources as well as other experienced employees. Much like with my dilemma commuting home in Sāmoa, I was able to use the available resources at hand and my own intuition to find answers to my problems.

  1. Handle difficult situations diplomatically

It is no surprise that I encountered a plethora of difficult situations during my time abroad – this is to be entirely expected when living in a foreign country for a prolonged period. Many times these issues dealt with miscommunication and misunderstandings with people in which general confusion led to feelings of frustration. Moreover, one of my greatest challenges abroad was trying my best to fully adopt fa’a Sāmoa, the Sāmoan way, inappropriate and suitable ways. This was a particularly difficult task on many personal levels during my week-long stay in the rural village of Amaile. There were many days when I felt like everything I said and did were either inappropriate in the cultural context or simply considered rude. This was by far the most difficult situation I had during the semester abroad which oftentimes left me feeling exasperated and isolated. However, I gradually learned to become more patient of myself and others. I slowly began to observe the people in my surroundings more often than I had earlier to see how others around me operated under fa’a Sāmoa. I also learned to be humble and ask my mentors and host family to clarify how my actions and words could be improved. 

I applied these same skills to my internship at NASA. Whenever I was assigned a project task with a steep learning curve such as working with Python libraries (something I had never done before) I would first sincerely tell my mentor that this was a new experience and that I would tackle the task to the best of my abilities. Whenever my attempts of completing the project goal failed and made me feel frustrated, I would calm myself down before thinking from a more level-headed perspective – What can I do to improve my situation? This was usually the moment when I would come up with solutions such as learning from past projects or speaking to my advisors about alternative paths to complete the task.  

  1. Be a self-reliant, functioning individual

The final portion of all SIT programs encourages students to conduct a month-long independent research project followed by a report. For this process, scholars conduct fieldwork and interviews revolving a research topic. I chose to conduct a study of the impacts and possibilities of future sustainable, climate-resilient technologies and urban design in Sāmoa. I needed to be confident in my communication, language, and academic skills in order to have a successful and all-inclusive study of my topic. For my specific project, I also set a goal for myself to learn how to use a computer-aided design software called SketchUp in order to render three-dimensional models of future sustainable Sāmoan homes. Through the process of my project, I gained entirely new experience of perseverance in not only gaining real, verbal feedback from candidates around the island but also self-teaching myself an advanced 3D modeling, mechanical engineering software with constrained use of the internet.  

I utilized these same skills of self-reliance during my internship at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Particularly in the beginning of the internship, there were moments when I felt symptoms of imposter syndrome in which I began to doubt my own skills and intellectual adequacy. I had still felt incredulous that I had earned one of the most prestigious and competitive science internships that a student, especially of my background, could be given. However, I learned to acknowledge that I had the academic foundation and experience that would help me excel at NASA. Despite the fact that I was working well beyond my comfort zone of gI utilized these same skills of self-reliance during my internship at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Particularly at the beginning of the internship, there were moments when I felt symptoms of imposter syndrome in which I began to doubt my own skills and intellectual adequacy. I had still felt incredulous that I had earned one of the most prestigious and competitive science internships that a student, especially of my background, could be given. However, I learned to acknowledge that I had the academic foundation and experience that would help me excel at NASA. Despite the fact that I was working well beyond my comfort zone of geographic information systems and learning new programming as well as data management skills, I knew that the only way to tackle these challenges was head-on. I am strong. I am confident. I am capable of accomplishing any and all goals that I set my mind to…

…and with that mentality, I conquered.

-Alyssa Kaewwilai

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