My father served in the Marine Corps, so we moved a lot during my childhood. Making friends and just fitting in were huge challenges because of my family’s transient lifestyle. I found solace in my schoolwork and excelled in math and science but never thought about working for NASA.
In the 1970’s, girls were encouraged to get married or pursue a career as a nurse or a teacher. My parents did not graduate from high school, so they were unable to provide career advice, and I wanted to go to college. I earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education but decided teaching was not the career for me.
I then decided to apply to a graduate school program in organizational behavior, but was rejected. This was a major disappointment as I did well in my behavioral classes and was even friends with the professor who had encouraged me to apply for graduate school. I was then encouraged to apply to the Masters of Business Administration program, but was rejected again, leaving me with a near zero self image. I was totally lost and unsure of what to do next.
I spoke to another graduate school official who recommended the Masters of Public Administration program, and figuring I had nothing to lose, I applied. Fortunately, I was accepted and later realized the MPA program was right for me.
In the last year of graduate school, I was selected for the Presidential Management Intern Program, a two-year internship with the federal government. I received interview requests from various agencies but was surprised when NASA called, since I was neither an engineer nor a scientist. They explained that NASA required all types of skills. I was honored and excited at this possibility.
I chose NASA and was assigned to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer at NASA Headquarters. I began in June, which is the peak of the budget process for the agency. My initial assignments were making copies, collating presentations and sitting through seemingly endless budget meetings.
My major responsibility was to coordinate the updating of the Chief Financial Officer’s budget book. The task was challenging since some of the analysts did not like to be reminded of the due dates! One analyst did not give me his budget book pages, and I was afraid to tell the boss that the book was not completed on time. My poor judgment resulted in him carefully explaining to me the importance of meeting deadlines. He explained that the due date was part of a larger integration process, and that even if the product is incomplete it should always be submitted on time with as much information as possible. I have always remembered this cardinal rule, and have taught this to the analysts I have trained.
After I completed my internship, I became a resource analyst in the International Space Station Freedom program office where I was responsible for specific Center budgets. I thoroughly enjoyed my job as I learned so much from working with the engineers. I gained knowledge of the engineering development cycle, participated in the formulation of an integrated master schedule and learned about the program office portion budget process.
When the space station office moved, I made a major career change by transferring to the Stennis Space Center to become their Resources Management Officer. Though I was only there for 18 months, I thoroughly enjoyed working with the employees and learning about the operations at a NASA center.
In 1993, I moved to the Armstrong Flight Research Center to become its Chief Financial Officer. Since the office had just been created, I wrote position descriptions, hired my management team, developed processes and worked to form a cohesive team. These were challenging but rewarding times, and I was fortunate to work with very talented employees.
Since 2001, I have served as Armstrong’s Associate Director for Management, recently renamed Director for Mission Support, responsible for mission support offices such as acquisition, finance, facilities, protective services and strategic communications, ensuring that these offices provide efficient and effective support for the programs. The most satisfying part of my job is solving problems and providing needed support to accomplish the center’s mission. My proudest achievement was establishing the mission support offices as a cohesive leadership team rather than a group of individual offices.
After working 28 years at NASA, I have learned some important life lessons, such as not giving up after experiencing failure and maintaining resilience. I found the courage to speak up, and asked questions or made statements that everyone else was thinking yet reluctant to share. I have strived to always do my best since my work is a reflection of not only myself but also of my organization. Most importantly, I have learned that as a team we can handle any challenge if we work together, which has given me the confidence that we as an agency will figure out what the next step in human spaceflight will be.
I have been lucky to work at NASA and have seen some pretty cool airplanes too, such as an SR-71 flyby while standing by the runway. I have also witnessed the record Mach 7 flight of the X-43 that made the Guinness Book of Records, and watched four space shuttle launches, two landings and the takeoff of the 747 shuttle carrier aircraft three times with space shuttles mounted atop. In May 2010, I saw the successful launch abort test of the Orion crew capsule. Recently, I observed the first open door flight of the SOFIA 747 aircraft and in my time at Armstrong I have been fortunate to see numerous airplane flyovers — opportunities I could never have foreseen when I started with NASA.
For the next generation, I want young girls to know that there is a myriad of career opportunities available. I especially like to talk to children of color so they can see someone like themselves working for NASA, something I never experienced when I was growing up. I enjoy sharing my life story in hope that it shows the importance of an education as well as seizing upon life’s opportunities and persevering when disappointments happen.
Gwen Young was a military brat and moved a lot during her childhood. Making friends was difficult, but a young Gwen found solace in school, excelling in math and science. She recalls, “Back in the ‘70s, women weren’t encouraged to pursue careers though nursing and teaching were common.” Thus, it is not surprising that she never dreamed of working for NASA. Later in life, Ms. Young had to make choices for her life and career. After working and going to school at night, she decided to apply to graduate school. When she was rejected, she applied to another program where she was rejected again. Feeling very lost, she talked to an advisor who recommended another program. Thankfully, she hadn’t given up just yet. After completing a Master’s in Public Administration, she was accepted into the Presidential Management Intern Program to work in the Office of the Comptroller at NASA Headquarters. Ms. Young pursued a career in financial management which was a natural fit given her love of math. This was great preparation for her next job as a program analyst with the Space Station Freedom Program, which provided a good understanding of the engineering development cycle. Ms. Young has worked in leadership positions at two NASA Centers, where she used her experiences from Headquarters to foster understanding and communications while providing mission support to NASA programs and projects. In her spare time, Ms. Young likes to speak to young people, especially minority groups since she is of Polynesian and Southeast Asian descent herself, to champion education, encourage perseverance in the face of defeat, and to seize opportunities even though they may seem difficult to find.