Meet an extraordinary UGA Engineering alumna who’s aiming for the stars! In this Q&A, we’ll introduce you to Joselin Ortuño, an International Space Station flight controller trainee who earned her BSME in 2023. Ortuño shares her remarkable journey as a first-generation college student, from childhood dreams of going to the moon to realizing her goal of working at NASA. Join us as she shares her insights into the importance of discipline, time management, and resilience for aspiring engineers.
Can you describe your current role at NASA and what projects you are currently working on?
“I am currently training to be a Flight Controller supporting the International Space Station (ISS). An ISS flight controller manages the spacecraft’s systems to ensure the safety of the crew, vehicle and success of the mission. Upon completion of my training, I will be responsible for station power, articulation, and thermal analysis (SPARTAN) onboard the ISS.
For about 18 months, I will be training to complete my first certification which allows me to support real-time operations with other consoles. Currently, I am going through Training Academy and Bootcamp where we receive a summary of the ISS, different console positions, and how they all tie in together before we get to work in our specific console position.”
How did you first become interested in working at NASA, and what steps did you take to achieve your goal?
“As a little girl, I always wondered what it would be like to go to the moon. As kids, I feel like we all have wondered that at some point, and it’s often left unexplored. But that fascination has always remained in the back of my head.
When I started university and my journey as a Mechanical Engineering student, that wonder started to grow bigger and bigger. I thought to myself, ‘maybe it is possible for me to go to the moon. I made it to college. I enjoy engineering. I’m going to try to get into NASA.’ Since then, I did everything I could during my academic journey to accept opportunities that would enhance my personal growth and engineering knowledge. I continued to excel in my classes as well as take on more leadership opportunities in organizations such as Tau Beta Pi and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). I was lucky enough to intern with Raytheon Intelligence and Space and get a taste of the aerospace industry. As soon as I started, I knew the aerospace world was for me.
I started my last year of college, telling myself, ‘I am going to work at NASA when I graduate. I don’t know how, but I will do it one way or another.’ After applying to several positions and receiving rejection emails, I received a call from a contractor at Johnson Space Center a few weeks before graduation. In that moment, I knew I did it. My dream of becoming an astronaut is now closer than it has ever been before!”
What is your favorite thing about your job?
“There are so many things I already love about my job, because duh, its NASA! But if I had to choose, I would say my favorite thing are the people around me. I am surrounded by the most intelligent people from all over the world. But also, the bravest. Our training class had the opportunity to be in a class with a current astronaut, and I was fan-girling the whole time. It was an honor and an experience sitting down and hearing them share their journey as an astronaut. They are truly inspiring. One thing that I will never be able to get over is the fact that an astronaut will just casually walk by you in the hallway, and you’re trying your best not to freak out. Truly amazing.”
How has your UGA Engineering degree influenced your career?
“I earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering this past May. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my degree taught me everything I need to know now. We touched topics on heat transfer, circuits and electronics, hydraulic systems, and more. Mechanical Engineering is so broad, which is one of the reasons I chose to pursue it, because I wanted to learn a little bit about everything. I am beyond grateful that I chose to stick with it because all the concepts from my courses carried into my current role. UGA Engineering fully equipped me with the necessary knowledge to be a successful engineer in the space arena.”
Are there any skills or lessons you learned during your college years that you believe have been particularly valuable in your professional life?
“Time management and discipline. Time management was key to be successful as an engineering student. During my four years I had to juggle time between my academics, organizations/clubs, friends and family, and lastly, myself. I began getting involved in organizations within the College of Engineering since my freshmen year. I soon held leadership roles, holding bigger responsibilities. On top of that, I had to keep up with my courses and maintain a high GPA for my scholarships. Lastly, college is stressful, so I would plan for social events during the week to keep up with my friends.
I kept up with all my plans using a calendar. My friends all knew me as the girl with the calendar. I would plan my weeks as far in advance as I could, so I knew what to expect and I wouldn’t be surprised when exams quickly approached. I would add every single event, and if something wasn’t on the calendar, I would not attend. Having an organized calendar allowed me to balance out my life and prioritize my academics.
Time management has been critical in my current role as I am undergoing training with evaluations/exams. I make sure to manage my time during the workday to review after every lecture and be fully prepared for all future evaluations. Outside of work, I am involved with professional organizations, exercise classes, and managing the adult life.
During my time as an undergraduate student, I strengthened my discipline. It taught me that I am the only one responsible for my success. Nobody tells you to go to class or study for exams. YOU are the only one that has control over your actions and decisions. Having discipline was a challenge for me at first, but I realized that if I wanted to achieve my dream of going to space, I had to master it. At NASA, we have a similar environment; we are expected to know and complete our tasks without needing constant supervision. Having mastered that discipline, I go into work prepared and ready to tackle the tasks for the day.”
What advice do you have for future Bulldog Engineers?
“My best advice is don’t give up. Engineering is difficult, and you will probably fail, but give it your best. After every failure, it should only motivate you to try again. It is easy to get discouraged, but how will you achieve your goals if you give up after the first failure? I could have given up after my first failed physics exam and changed my major. However, it only motivated me more to do better for the next exam. I could have given up after I got rejected from NASA the first time, but I did not give up. Times will get tough as an engineering student, but I can guarantee that if you don’t give up, you will be rewarded.”
As a first-generation student, looking back at your life, upbringing, parents, how does it feel to be working at NASA?
“I feel like I’m in a dream. I keep pinching myself to make sure this is real. As a first-generation student, it seems almost impossible to be where I am now. To look back and think how my parents gave up everything in Mexico just so I had a chance to have a better education. They came to the U.S. with nothing in their pockets and not knowing a bit of English. I cannot imagine the amount of courage it took for them to do that. I didn’t even think I would make it to college due to so many barriers. There were many odds against me, but I did not give up. To me, working at NASA means that all the sacrifices my parents made were worth it.”
What word of wisdom do you have for other first-generation students?
“Don’t undermine your accomplishments. Being a first-generation student is already a big feat in and of itself whether you graduated high school or you’re attending college. All of college, I used to compare my accomplishments to those of my peers feeling like I haven’t done enough. This really messed with my head for a while until a close friend came to me during my senior year and told me, “You’re doing amazing things and I don’t think you even realize it.” It got me thinking about every small and big accomplishment I have ever achieved in my life.
Graduating high school, filling out a college application, being accepted into college, passing the first college exam, completing freshmen year, working while being in school, holding leadership positions in organizations, or simply just being a student are all such big accomplishments that should be celebrated. You took the risk of diving into the unknown world of college knowing you had to figure it all out on your own. You knew it was going to be a maze, yet you still took that first step.
Be proud of every step you take in your educational journey regardless of how miniscule you think it is. You are paving a path for other first-generation students wanting to follow your lead. Be proud as your parents might not have had the same opportunities you do. You are creating a legacy for being the one that took the initiative to be the first one in your family to take that initial step.”