Photo Credit: Andrew Boone

A year into her dream career in fashion and Andrea Martinez was looking to the stars, dreaming of an escape.

The SMC student had a lifelong dream of becoming a star fashion designer, owning a boutique someday and all, but something just didn’t feel right. An existential quarter-life crisis and career pivot later and Martinez was rubbing shoulders with NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars.

“It’s all a bit surreal when you think about it in a grandiose kind of way,” the 25-year-old Martinez said in a phone call with the Daily Press.

Ruminating on growing up as a kid, Martinez said she’d watch space shuttle launches with awe and wonder. In a younger Martinez’s mind, a career path of librarian/astronaut/firefighter was a sure thing, a dream her hard-working,  blue-collar immigrant parents would encourage, to reach for the stars. Becoming a librarian/astronaut/firefighter may be a little off the beaten path, sure, but to Martinez it was possible. Just like fashion.

Martinez initially fell in love with fashion for the inherent creativity involved; conceptual work, research, creating something tangible that would later go on people’s bodies that they’d feel proud to wear.

This creativity was stifled, however, upon landing a freelance job at Vince, at the time a top name in luxury designer clothing. There Martinez attempted to be proactive about becoming a permanent part of the team, seeking performance reviews and asking for feedback.

These efforts were met with indifference. It became more apparent that things weren’t going to get better.

“I kind of realized this was not a place where I could grow as an artist or person, ever,” Martinez said. “The things I loved about fashion were not present in the industry, at least not for me in LA. I was incredibly disillusioned.”

She soon sought help from other peers, higher-ups, other companies, trying to cull advice or glean from experiences, anything that could help her through this rough patch.

Alarmingly, these people she sought out mentioned aspects of jobs they enjoyed — enough time off in the year, a week of sick days, lax clock in and clock out times — but not one person in the industry said they were happy.

“It spoke volumes. It confirmed to me that a company or job title change wasn’t going to solve my problems.” Martinez knew she needed out.

She soon moved back in with her parents, a moment Martinez jokingly calls “a shameful time, my quarter life crisis”, working at Whole Foods as a bartender as she formed plans for her now uncertain future.

“I was an artists and designer for so long, and now these things weren’t making me happy. Who am I if I’m not those things?”

She focused on goals, narrowing down what qualities she wanted in a new role in life and what kept her hungry and motivated.

The answer she arrived at nearly surprised Martinez herself– something in the field of STEM.

“I wanted to be in an environment where I could keep learning, contribute something. All qualities of STEM-related fields.”

She signed up for classes at SMC after hearing good things about it’s academic reputation and resources for students.

Martinez had a vague idea of where she wanted to go with STEM and threw herself into math and computer science classes, despite not being strong in either.

“My highest level of math at that point was I think geometry,” Martinez said with a laugh. “ It was daunting at first. I felt like a fashion person masquerading as a STEM person.”

Growing comfortable with her new subjects, Martinez embedded herself into SMC, tutoring other students and signing up for panels, internship opportunities and scholarships when she could via emails from professors.

One of these emails was for NASA’s NCAS program, a program which gives community college students a hands-on NASA experience, encouraging them to continue in STEM and hopefully, NASA.

Inspired by her parents — who gave Martinez “borderline delusional confidence” — and Amy Poehler, Martinez applied for the program. “I thought the worst thing they could say was no, so why not? In the words of Amy Poehler, ‘Great people do things before they’re ready.’”

Martinez got in to the first portion of the two-part. The first portion covering NASA’s history, missions, contributions to society, and completion of a capstone project. This portion of the program would serve as application to NASA’s onsite program.

For her capstone project, Martinez married her design sensibilities with her STEM sensibilities, analyzing routes, equipment fuel resources for NASA’s Evolvable Mars Campaign.

Once finished, Martinez was exhausted– and filled with anxiety. She paced, wondering and waiting for NASA’s decision. Would they accept her? Did she give all she could in her capstone project? Would her efforts be enough?

Soon, she got her answer. All she needed to see was an email from NASA with the first line of the body being CONGRATULATIONS!

Martinez recently finished up her onsite program with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena this past September. She’s applied to intern for the JPL over the summer.

“My fingers are crossed,” she said. “But the idea that I’ve had this second chance at life and can possibly contribute to something so meaningful… not only does it validate my own journey and choices, but it’s an incredible way to honor the sacrifice my parents made for me, to work in the realm of the unknown and succeed.”

For more on Andrea and her SMC journey:

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