Powtawche Williams Valerino ’05 has received the NAACP’s Education Award from the Pasadena, CA branch. She was one of 12 people to be honored for their commitments to their communities.
“It took me completely by surprise, as it happened when I was out on maternity leave,” said the Cassini and Solar Probe Plus Navigation Team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “This was such a wonderful surprise; it’s the sort of thing you never expect to come your way.”
Valerino was recognized for her outreach efforts, encouraging young people to learn more about and pursue opportunities in STEM fields. Employees at the JPL are encouraged to volunteer, and many lead facility tours or speak to school groups. Valerino is one of them, and she enjoys sharing her experience as a navigation engineer with elementary, middle and high school students, as well as college students majoring in STEM fields.
Valerino, who is part African-American, part Mississippi Choctaw, recently, gave a tour to an all African-American Girl Scout troop. “I always love speaking to minority students because I think it’s important that they see someone who looks like them doing work like this,” she said. “And these girls were great. Usually, we’ll get questions about the spacecraft, but these girls were asking about what clean rooms were and how missions worked. But when I asked them if they’d like to someday work here, having seen the JPL, a lot of them said ‘I don’t know.’ Turns out, no one in their families had done anything like this, so they didn’t have a road map for how it could look as a career.”
Valerino knows something about that, having been a first-generation engineer herself, earning a Ph.D. from Rice in mechanical engineering. And, since having her first child, a son, three months ago, it’s something she thinks about even more. She said that many of the engineers at the JPL are second-, third-, even fourth-generation engineers.
“My husband is a scientist, and I want my son to see me being an engineer, so he grows up with the idea that not only can he do this, if he chooses to, but that women can be and are engineers, too,” she said.
For Valerino, sharing her knowledge with the next generation of students is natural. She knows that in telling her story, she’s providing valuable exposure to a profession many women and minorities aren’t usually encouraged to pursue. She has worked with Soledad O’Brien to encourage Black and Latina females to pursue careers in STEM at the PoweHERful summit. She has volunteered with the Girls on the Run program at Washington Elementary School in Pasadena, and has read books for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, now known as Learning Ally, at a Hollywood studio. Valerino also does outreach to the youth on the Mississippi Choctaw Indian reservation’s high school.
“I am at the middle of my career,” she said. “And I looked at the other winners of the NAACP awards, and I realized I was the youngest person there. That encourages me, because I see that I still have such a long way to go. This award is an affirmation that I am doing exactly what I should be doing for the community.