NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars

Andrea Coto: Three associate degrees later

Andrea CotoBecoming an astronaut is a dream often dismissed as a possibility by kids as they grow up due to the overwhelming obstacles, but that is not the case for NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) alum Andrea Coto. From the age of 4, her mom had told her she had the potential to fly in space, a dream that Coto pursues to this day as a NASA Ames Research Center intern.

Born in San Francisco but raised in El Salvador, Coto grew up speaking Spanish with her younger brother and parents. She loved to learn and excelled in school, especially when it came to math, but life was not always so easy. Her parents separated when she was 16. In hindsight, this life-altering event is welcomed by none, but provided the tools for success later down the road.

To provide for her family, Coto picked up part-time work alongside with school, and upon high-school graduation, began an associate’s degree in civil engineering while in El Salvador. "My mom taught me to work hard for the things that I want," Coto attributed, and work hard she did.

After finishing her first associate's degree, Coto moved back to the U.S., started working, and enrolled in the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) at 20, embarking on a journey full of uncertainty.

"I came to the U.S. because my family needed me to start working," Coto said. "It was hard for me to see my mom crying every night."

With only a basic understanding of English, Coto enrolled as an English Secondary Language (ESL) student, taking introductory courses that did not count for credit. Upon transition into credit classes, Coto enrolled in the dreaded Calculus course all while still learning a new language and measuring and trying to get her family to join her in the United States.

"I was about to give up in Calculus II due to family issues," Coto said. "I did not think I was incapable, but I thought it was too hard for me."

With the help of a close mentor who showed Coto outside influences had given her the wrong mentality, Coto overcame her doubts and passed with a B.

As her family joined her in the United States and her English improved, Coto's achievements began to stack up. On the brink of completing three associate degrees in fall 2016 in Latin American Studies, Math and Science, and Social Behavioral Studies from CCSF and awaiting admittance into San Jose State University, Coto saw a Facebook post about NCAS.

Coto immediately jumped on the opportunity to participate in a NASA program. She applied and was soon admitted, giving her access to NCAS’ four-month online course. Completion of this course then grants access into NCAS.

Thinking back, Coto said, "Everything up to this moment was thanks to my first two NASA opportunities: NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) and NASA's Stem Synthesis Community College Internship Program (SSCCIP). I learned a ton about myself through these experiences. I spread the word everywhere I go."

A couple of months after giving the CCSF graduating class commencement speech, Coto headed to Ames for the NCAS on-site experience.

All NCAS participants are assigned to a team that is challenged to form a company, which then creates a mock-up Mars Rover to be pitched to NASA to land the rover contract. Coto was quickly elected team leader of a very close-knit gold team that went on to fail the first competition. Through the frustration, Coto stayed optimistic, guided her team to reevaluate and set new goals. In the next competition, they placed first. The gold team placed second overall, with Coto selected as the MVP.

Now a junior undergraduate student at San Jose State University with her eyes set on a Civil Engineering degree, Coto continues to excel, and she keeps dreaming about going into space, but never forgets where she came from.

"As an immigrant, realizing and having pride of your own cultural background helps you to keep pursuing your educational dreams in STEM," Coto said.

She now operates two startups with her family. One helps people of Hispanic descent find scholarships, fellowships and internships, and the other produces educational tutorials, primarily focused on math, that take students step by step in "Spanglish" learn both English and the mathematical content.

Now an intern at Ames, Coto continues to learn, outshine expectations and give back.

"I feel much more capable now," Coto said. "NCAS helped me realize my full potential."

She always tells others to be grateful for what you have, and not be afraid of failure.

"Thank you to everyone who put their work into these programs that got me here," Coto said. "What makes me happy is to help people."

And she will keep working to do just that.

-Andrea Coto, NASA Ames Research Center intern