NORMAL — The saying, “The sky is the limit,” might not apply to Heartland Community College student Melody Dashora.
She recently reached beyond those limits, toward the stars, participating in a NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program that included spending four days at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss.
While there, she was project director for a 10-member team of fellow students who worked to develop and test a prototype of a rover to explore Mars for a fictional company.
But first, she had to complete an intensive, five-week online course with two tests a week, to which she devoted about 30 hours a week — while also taking Heartland classes and raising a family.
She performed well enough in the online program to be among 280 community college students nationwide invited to the on-site program at Stennis, with all expenses paid.
Padriac Shinville, Heartland's dean of enrollment services, said he and the staff are proud of her.
“We have a tag line, 'Choose your destination; we'll help you get there.' I never suspected that destination could be outer space,” said Shinville.
There were four 10-person teams in Dashora's group. They were at Stennis from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, then continued their work when they got back to their hotel.
“It was intense and amazing,” she said. “It made me feel a lot more confident.”
The program is designed to give community college students in science, technology, engineering or math an authentic NASA experience and encourage them to finish a two-year degree or transfer to a four-year university to pursue a NASA-related field or career.
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Shinville said it's exciting to “see STEM students coming out of Heartland, knowing they're the next generation of scientists.”
“It was life-changing. ... It reinforced what I want to do,” said Dashora, who is interested in pursuing a career involving Artificial Intelligence.
“AI is kind of scary to a lot of people,” said Dashora, but she believes it has tremendous applications, from doing security work to providing programs to children that challenge them and help them “love to learn.”
In addition to their teamwork on the Mars rover prototype and touring the NASA facility, participants also heard presentations from various experts involved in the space program who got their starts at community colleges.
Among them was former astronaut Fred Haise, a member of the Apollo 13 crew, who spoke to the group via video link.
She said their message to the students was, “Wherever you start, finish. … You never know what you can do to change the world.”
It's similar to the message Dashora, 40, is sending to her own three children, ages 8 through 11.
A high school dropout, Dashora ran her own business for 15 years, then stepped out of the workforce for seven years to raise her children.
When she decided to go back to school, “I jumped into it head first,” she said, admitting to being “nervous at first” as a non-traditional student.
“My Heartland teachers wouldn't let me fail at all,” she said. “They push you to do the best you can do and that made me want to continue.”
After getting her GED, she started taking college classes. The family is moving to Texas, where her husband, who works for State Farm, is being transferred. But she intends to finish her Heartland degree online then go to the University of Texas at Austin.
“I did all of this for my children to show them it can be done,” she said.
Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota