Throughout my life, I’ve always felt like the new kid on the block. I was born in Vietnam and, at age 8, had to flee to the U.S. with my family. I found myself living in a new country, with a new culture, learning a new language, attending new schools, and trying to build new relationships with a very diverse group of people.
I sacrificed some of my own culture to try to enter the mainstream as quickly as possible, but some fundamental values I grew up with, which were part of the Vietnamese culture, stayed with me. For instance, there’s a strict hierarchy within the society that teaches you to respect those around you accordingly. Also, one of the most respected professions in Vietnam is teaching. I was shocked to see the lack of respect for teachers in the United States in comparison.
It’s not surprising that the most influential people in my life have been my mother and my teachers. Somehow, in a very subtle way, my mom made it very clear to all her kids that each and every one of us must get at least a degree at a respectable 4-year college. That fundamental fact alone motivated me to get good grades, helped me pick appropriate and challenging classes in high school, and prompted me to figure out early on what I wanted to be when I grew up. Along with my mother’s watchful eye on my progress were the attentiveness of a few caring teachers who were passionate about what they do. What differentiated them from other teachers was their ability to teach me how to think and learn, much more than just what to think and learn.
I did learn early that I wanted to be an astronaut. As a kid in Vietnam, watching TV wasn’t very entertaining for me so my family and I spent our evenings sitting on our balcony and chatting while we stargazed. Though it’s not clear how much was folklore and how much she made up on the spot, my mother told me interesting stories about the constellations and the moon. When I discovered that people had actually traveled to the moon, I decided I wanted to do that, too, and tucked that away as a goal. When I was 14 years old and already living in the United States, I decided I wanted to work for NASA so I could get into the astronaut corps, and, as a result, picked aerospace engineering for my major in college. It was probably a good thing that I neglected to actually review an astronaut application form before starting down that path, because my near-sightedness would eventually disqualify me! I feel as though I’ve come full circle now that I’m working on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, program; it will take astronomy to a new level that I could not have imagined as a kid sitting on the balcony of my home in Vietnam.
Working for NASA, it’s easy to feel like the new kid on the block on any given day. I remember coming to work for my first day at NASA Armstrong dressed formally in a skirt and heels because I thought that’s what professionals do. I did that for about 3 days then happily transitioned back into some comfortable jeans once I realized Armstrong is a very casual, no-frills environment and I stuck out like a sore thumb in my skirt and heels. As my days at Armstrong progressed, I was pleasantly surprised to find that you eventually cross paths with just about everyone at the center because it is a relatively small one. I remember walking down the hall and whenever I walked by someone who didn’t know me, he or she would stop and introduce him/herself and ask me who I was.
I spent the first 13 years at Armstrong as a simulation engineer, another 7 years or so as a Branch Chief, and now serve as the associate chief engineer on the SOFIA Program. I’m happy to say that I’ve worked on about 10 aeronautics and science projects during that time and all but two have made it to successful flight. One of my tasks as a simulation engineer was to set up the simulation for training of personnel who staff the control room in preparation for a mission. One of my happiest moments was to see the smiling faces of the engineers as they walked out of the control room after the first successful X-43A (Hyper-X) flight. One of them told me that he couldn’t tell whether it had been a real flight or one of our simulated training sessions – that’s how flawless that flight was. I was so happy for the team members, many of whom were young engineers who had just experienced their first successful flight.
What I’ve realized over time is that I don’t ever want to lose that feeling of being the new kid on the block. It encourages me to remain open to new ideas and insights. It forces me to continually learn as well as contribute. It reminds me to build new relationships with people, and continually strengthen existing ones. It keeps me from getting complacent or stagnating. It forces me out of my comfort zone. It reminds me to listen more and encourages me to ask questions.
Jeanette Le’s road to NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in California started in Vietnam, which she, with her parents, fled when she was 8 years old – leaving Ms. Le with the feeling that she is, in her own words, the eternal “new kid on the block.” But, being “the new kid” has in no way deterred Ms. Le from rising to stellar heights as associate program chief engineer for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (known as SOFIA), an airborne telescope that studies the cosmos. Ms. Le, whose culture teaches respect for teachers, views one of her roles at NASA as a mentor for junior engineers on projects such as the X-43A, the world’s fastest jet-powered aircraft. Indeed, as she writes, one of her “happiest moments was to see the smiling faces of the [young] engineers as they walked out of the control room after the first successful X 43A [Hyper-X] flight.” Ms. Le, who is a recipient of the NASA Exceptional Service Award, was first inspired to join the space program when viewing the moon from a balcony in Vietnam. She turned inspiration into fact through her pursuit and successful completion of a bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a master of science degree in aeronautics/astronautics engineering from Stanford University, Palo Alto, California – quite an achievement for a self-professed “new kid on the block.”