NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars

The Road to Take Action

Andrew RochaMy name is Andrew Rocha.  Pursuing a STEM major as a first-generation Hispanic college student has had many strenuous obstacles, however my drive has only grown, allowing me to continue reaching for my potential.

I spent my childhood navigating a neglectful school system in the gang-controlled, impoverished neighborhoods of East Los Angeles. I felt inferior due to attending a high school with a 20% graduation rate and joining a freshman class with an average 4th reading level. My mother had difficulty offering help with my courses as a single parent. She emigrated from Tijuana, Mexico at the age of 18. She continues to be my biggest inspiration. She encourages me to do well in school, work hard, and achieve independence.

My family’s financial situation declined when my mother was laid off after 13 years of service. After a year of unemployment, she grew ill and became bedridden, which affected my sister and I. Uninsured and desperate, we traveled to a hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, where my mother received multiple blood transfusions. Upon her slow recovery, she was diagnosed with a chronic condition called ulcerative colitis. During this period, I worked full-time, which made my grades suffer my first year at Pasadena City College. I fell into debt as I became responsible for my mother’s bills. Overwhelmed and ever-aware of my tentative future at age 19, I didn’t have many choices.  I decided to take action.

Andrew Rocha at NASA/Jet Propulsion LabThis sequence of events brought a definitive shift in my life. I wanted to make my mother proud. Last year, I began the process of paying out-of-state tuition at a top tier university. This has come with some rough patches, although I have been awarded opportunities to attend conferences and retreats, been offered scholarships, and achieved recognition for my research in the optical sciences.

One opportunity for advancement I had early on was the NCAS program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The NCAS experience made me feel it was essential to pursue my passions. It motivated me to continue to look for experiences that maximized my skill sets in a team-oriented environment. I later received a University of California-Riverside Pathways internship that served to teach me about research in an academic setting. I was later accepted into the University of Arizona’s College of Optical Sciences. I hope to one day visit space after pursuing a Ph.D. in my field. 

However challenging my situation is, my motivation to break through a socioeconomic barrier and make my mother proud keeps me moving forward.  I encourage students out there that are considering entering STEM fields to take a proactive approach to your education, you never know where it may lead!