Cuyamaca alum wins aerospace fellowship
A student who once struggled to find her academic footing is now looking toward a Ph.D. and a future in space exploration.
Cuyamaca College alumna and former staff member Monica Namo is one of just 51 recipients worldwide of a prestigious 2022 Brooke Owens Fellowship. Namo is currently earning her second bachelor’s degree. The coveted opportunity includes a summer internship and mentorship program for undergraduate women seeking careers in aviation or aerospace technology.
The fellowship was created in 2017 in the memory of Dawn Brooke Owens, an American pilot and space policy expert who worked with NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the White House.
Namo was selected out of a pool of more than 1,000 applicants after a rigorous selection process that included interviews with dozens of leading aerospace employers. Participants in the program, nicknamed “Brookies,” are selected based on their community commitment, creative abilities, record of leadership and desire to pursue a career in aerospace.
Namo will begin a 12-week paid internship at BryceTech, an analytics and engineering firm in Alexandria, Virginia, at the end of the month.
“My aspirations are to continue in my studies toward a Ph.D. in applied mathematics, which I then want to use in the area of research in the aerospace field,” she said.
Aerospace once seemed an unlikely path for Namo, a self-described “bad student” in high school. She recalls an occasion when she expressed an interest in taking an Advanced Placement course, only to be brushed aside by a counselor who told her she wasn’t a good candidate for AP classes.
Namo didn’t bother applying for college, convinced she wouldn’t be accepted anywhere.
“I just knew it wasn’t a possibility,” she said of college.
But a decision to attend Cuyamaca and Grossmont colleges proved otherwise.
“Community college gave me a second chance,” she said. “I made an academic pivot there.”
At Cuyamaca, Namo was able to slowly gain confidence in her academics, as well as independence. Little things such as driving to school on her own for the first time, taking breaks on the beach, and trying out different majors gave her the feeling of autonomy she needed to prepare for her future. Most of all, at Cuyamaca, Namo didn’t have anyone telling her she couldn’t do it.
Until moving out of the region earlier this spring, Namo worked part-time as an outreach ambassador at Cuyamaca College. She is now pursuing a second bachelor’s degree in math from California State University, Long Beach. She previously majored in political science at Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges before transferring in 2016 to UC Berkeley, where she earned a bachelor’s in political science and government in 2019.
After completing several lower-division math classes at Berkeley, Namo landed an internship with NASA in the Capacity Building program, which focuses on helping mitigate the effects of natural disasters and climate change on various communities. In 2020, she returned to Cuyamaca College to earn an associate’s in math, which led to her transfer to Cal State Long Beach.
Support and Representation
As a first-generation college student in an immigrant household, Namo found it hard to navigate an educational system that neither she nor her parents understood. Enrolling in college, filling out financial aid forms, and finding jobs and internships are processes students like Namo must discern with little parental guidance. The networking and diversity found at community colleges are crucial, Namo said, recalling how meeting other Middle Eastern women along her academic journey was “comforting and nostalgic.”
“The sense of comfort from meeting someone with a similar experience to you makes you more likely to ask for help,” she said of her family’s Chaldean and Assyrian background.
Her experiences as a first-generation college student are also a big reason why Namo found her work at the Cuyamaca Outreach Department so rewarding
“I want students to share information with others,” she said. “Whatever benefitted you, pass it on to someone else.”
Cuyamaca College is part of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. The district’s two colleges, Grossmont College in El Cajon and Cuyamaca College in Rancho San Diego, together serve about 24,000 students. For information about the college district, go to www.gcccd.edu.