Caroline To

The stories of Vietnamese Boat People had begun soon after April 1975. This story was also a part of my life.

I was born and raised in the main capital of South Viet Nam (Saigon). I lived there until the fall of the South Viet Nam, April 30, 1975. Like most of the South Vietnamese families; our family’s lives took an unexpected turn.

Within a few days of the fall of the South Viet Nam, my family was forced out of our home, with nothing. We moved to my mother’s childhood town, located on the country’s coastline border.

A year later, after my older sister successfully left Vietnam, I too escaped the country in late 1980 with my two young children; ages five and two. We spent three nights and two days at sea, with 42 other people on a small fishing boat.

Many times, we faced Thai pirates. We were beaten and assaulted for gold. Luckily, no one was killed. To this day, I still can’t talk about the ordeal we endured during those times.

On the third day at sea, our boat ran out of oil, water, and food. There wasn’t even a small ray of hope of surviving. I thought, “only God can save us at this point.” Before the sun set that day, a Malaysian coast guard rescued us!

My children and I stayed in Malaysia, Pulau-Bidong Refugee Camp, for almost nine months. Later, the Red Cross transferred us to a Philippines’ Refugee Camp (Bataan).

When we arrived, my children and I were re-united with my older sister in California in late 1981. I worked small jobs and attended night classes at De Anza College. My goal was just to learn English so that I can have a better opportunity for work.

After three years, I found a NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) Internship Program announcement in the De Anza College Career Center. I needed work, so I applied for an administrative intern job, not knowing what it entailed.

The day of the job interview, I was so shocked and impressed when I saw the guards at the front gate and the big buildings. Wow, this place is just like a kingdom.

I was accepted to the program in the summer of 1988.

Betty Beyerly, the most kind-hearted mentor, trained me. She taught me how to type, answer phones, file paperwork, etc. I didn’t know much about NASA then, I just knew that I was working in a “kingdom” and was proud of it. One day, my ESL instructor told my classmates that I was in the NASA ARC internship-program. She encouraged them to apply and explained what NASA is, and she mentioned the words “Apollo 11”.

Ah, Apollo 11, I remembered it now. The first time I heard about it was from my grandfather. He didn’t believe anything about it, to him, the story was just a myth; no one has the ability to go that far. I was thinking then, if I had a chance, I would love to visit the moon myself. I didn’t understand much of what my teacher was trying to explain about Apollo 11, but I could see her passion when she talked about Apollo and NASA! I realized then I had been given a great opportunity to work in the most prestigious place on Earth!

I became a U.S. Citizen in 1989. A few months later, just before my internship ended, I applied for a full time position as a GS 04 Secretary. I was selected to work for Dr. Ellen Ochoa, the Chief of Intelligent Systems Technology Branch. In 1991, Dr. Ochoa was selected to become the first Hispanic female astronaut. I was so proud that I was her secretary!

In 1999, I worked for the Applied Information Technology Division as an Administrative Specialist position.

I transferred to the Space Sciences and Astrobiology Division in 2004, and was promoted as the Assistant Chief of the Division in 2008. I provide professional administrative management in areas of human resources, training, and Division resource management.

In the Space Sciences and Astrobiology Division, I have the good fortune to be able to interact with the world-class scientists. I also have a great opportunity to work and support the young scientists through a NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP), who come from around the world to learn and work with the best of the best. I actually manage the entire NPP program at NASA ARC. To me, these experiences are phenomenal stories that I can share with others with pride.

In the 27 years I have been working at Ames, I have gained a wide range of experiences throughout several organizations. I’ve met so many friends and colleagues that I cherish as a second family.

For the past decade, I have been serving the Space Science and Astrobiology Division and the scientist staff. This Division and its people have given me great opportunities to grow professionally. They have nurtured me through their constant encouragement. They have been great teachers who have taught me to understand through their passion in studying, researching for better Science in Space and the Earth. This is what NASA is.

I would like to dedicate my accomplishments at NASA to my beloved mentor, Mrs. Betty Beyerly. RIP.

Photo of Caroline To


In 1988, while attending De Anza College, Caroline To found a NASA Ames Research Center Internship Program announcement posted on the campus’ Career Center bulletin board. At the time, she was actively looking for a career and immediately applied for the Administrative Intern position. When Ms. To first started working at NASA, she had little knowledge about what the program involved. Once settled into the position, she quickly realized that NASA was the place where her dreams, of having a career that she could be proud of, could come true. Growing up in a country ravaged by war, her only dream was to be alive and well. Today, she is an Assistant Chief for Space Science and Astrobiology Division, and provides professional administrative management in areas of human resources, training, and Division resource management. Ms. To also serves as Program Manager for the Center NASA Postdoctoral Program. Ms. To says she is most proud of her children and husband as they have supported her through difficult times. She says, to witness her children leading successful and happy life is her greatest accomplishment. The happiest moment of her career was when she received one of the most prestigious awards, “Exceptional Service Medal,” from the Agency.