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Acclaimed African American astronaut inspires Greene County students


Joan Higginbotham delivers speech, astronauts in background
If you ever wanted to see a full auditorium of high school kids fall silent, you needed to be at Greene County High School’s presentation from a NASA Astronaut last week. Astronaut Joan Higginbotham, a 20-year veteran of NASA, flew on a Space Shuttle Discovery mission and was just the third African American woman to fly on a mission. It was a presentation of her life, career and journey into space and the special messages she took the time to share with the students.

If you ever wanted to see a full auditorium of high school kids fall silent, you needed to be at Greene County High School’s presentation from a NASA Astronaut last week. Astronaut Joan Higginbotham, a 20-year veteran of NASA, flew on a Space Shuttle Discovery mission and was just the third African American woman to fly on a mission. It was a presentation of her life, career and journey into space and the special messages she took the time to share with the students.


Chuck Rowland – vice president of Thillen Education Foundation, board chairman of the local Boys and Girls Club and coach and team leader for Greene County’s College and Career Academy – was responsible for bringing Higginbotham into the schools. Rowland is a leading supporter of education and recognizes its vital role in developing and encouraging all children to excel in life. He knows education is a lifelong lesson and pursuit and devotes considerable resources to ensure that happens for all Greene County students.


Higginbotham started her career with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, having left a corporate job. Holding degrees in electrical engineering from Southern Illinois University and masters degrees in management science and space systems from the Florida Institute of Technology, Higginbotham stressed that education was the key to beginning her quest in finding her career path and excelling in multiple roles.


Two weeks after graduation from Southern Illinois, Higginbotham started her career with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1987 as a payload electrical engineer. Within six months, Higginbotham became the lead for orbiter experiments on OV-102, the Space shuttle Columbia. There were challenging responsibilities conducting electrical compatibly tests for all payloads flown aboard the shuttle. While at Kennedy, she actively participated in 53 space shuttle launches over nine years at Cape Canaveral.



Joan Higginbotham (right) poses with a student
Oriona Harris, a student who aspires to be a rocket scientist, meets Joan Higginbotham.

“There was the excitement of hearing the roar of the engines on the launch pad and knowing I had a part in the success of these missions,” she said. Being selected for a space mission had Higginbotham pursue a masters degree, and she encouraged students to know that setbacks and choices in life will happen but to continue to pursue their plans and excellence in what they do. She challenged the students to know it takes hard work and commitment and encouraged them with practical steps to stay focused and grounded with pursing their dreams.


“A setback is just a setup for a comeback,” she said.


Higginbotham may have spent just 13 days in space on Discovery, but her road to that selection took time. It was this selection process of more than 6,000 applicants that had her feeling that the others may have been “out of” her league. She was clearly wrong and made the crew in 1996 on her second try. Training began shortly in Houston.


“I found my ‘it’,” she said. “I wanted to be an astronaut. I had taken my love for math and science and became an electrical engineer, but now I set my sights higher. I had faith in my abilities. I didn’t think someone like me, being African American, could make the cut.”

Higginbotham closed with some salient advice for the students by giving them important takeaways.


“Believe in yourself, find your ‘it’,” she said. “You will change and grow over time, but know it is a process. Do not let setbacks set you back. Be kind and courteous and always do your best. Surround yourself with people who support your dreams and efforts and always do your best.”


She shared a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, an American essayist, lecturer and abolitionist from the 1800s. She noted that it resonated with her and wanted to share with the students: “Only be what you are destined to be.”


“The sky is no longer the limit,” she said. “Remember that.”


This post was originally featured on Lake Oconee News.


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