Tina Cao: Turning "You can't" into "I did"
A firm handshake, good posture and maintained eye contact are subtle ways to command respect from peers and shine as a valuable team player—for men, at least. For women, as Tina Cao has experienced firsthand, acceptance can be undermined by unfair and subconscious prejudice.
Cao grew up in San Diego. Her parents emigrated from Vietnam to the United States in search of a better life. In her early years, she lived with her father, an electrical engineer, and her mom, who sewed clothes and dresses for her family from sunup to sundown.
School was never Cao's strong suit, and she considered dropping out of high school multiple times. However, she always had her sights on a higher education, and managed to get into a community college after high school.
"I realized what my parents did for me, coming from Vietnam with no education," Cao said. "It showed me that they want nothing but the best. I decided to turn my life around a bit in community college. My parents overcame far more obstacles than I ever have."
This newfound motivation propelled Cao to get as involved as possible, joining every organization and taking all the opportunities that came her way. She began inching up the ladder, enrolling in college algebra to pursue a degree in computer science—eventually working her way up to calculus III. Still, some of her calculus classmates didn’t take her seriously.
"There would be discouragement because of that fact that I started low," Cao recalled. "I was also the only girl in a lot of the classes, so it was hard to find support."
The constant doubt in her capabilities slowly took a toll, bringing on self-doubt, but Cao kept her head high. Even in her struggle to be taken seriously, she was welcomed into the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program and registered in the challenging, five-week online course that would prepare her for a four-day onsite experience at a NASA center.
She came to NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in October 2016 to begin what she would later recognize as the newest chapter in her life. Cao's team named themselves "Team Space Guac." Together, they embarked on a Mission to Mars journey onsite experience, never looking back.
"NCAS was the one thing that started it all for me," Cao said. "It erupted a fire in me to just try really hard. It gave me the drive; it was exactly what I needed to propel myself forward in my career. I learned not only technicalities, I learned the mindset needed to carry me through my career. The mentors inspired me and instructed me. My cheeks hurt from smiling so much, talking about the program."
Finally, her ideas were welcome at the table.
"At NCAS, people always listened to my voice and opinions," Cao said. "It was one of the most uplifting and motivational experiences of my life. I didn't have to fight to be heard. They taught me you don't have to be great to start, you just have to start to be great."
After her teamed placed first, Cao found new motivation from the life-changing experience she had at NCAS, stumbling across the MIT Solve competition. With two weeks to put together an entire design and proposal to mitigate carbon emissions, Cao thought, "Why not?" She submitted a proposal with her team.
They competed against teams with designs years in the making. Of 127 teams worldwide, 11 were selected as finalists-including Cao's group. After presenting to a panel of judges at the United Nation's headquarters in New York City, Cao impatiently waited for the results. They would learn they did not place. While the team excelled at the technical aspects, their lack of a business plan put them behind. Cao was one of two women among nearly 30 men on stage.
Cao has also competed in NASA's Micro-G NeXT, or Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams, with her eyes set on an internship with the agency. She will be transferring to the University of California-Irvine to pursue computer science and systems engineering with a minor in business management.
"Turn your weaknesses into your strengths," Cao said. "It's good to challenge yourself. It's good to make yourself grow."
Lessons learned from such an accomplished individual should not fall on deaf ears. Following everything Cao has done, she plans to make her words heard by everyone.
-Tina Cao, NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) alum