The Shriver Report – Waiting Tables to NASA: How Education Changed My Life
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Waiting Tables to NASA: How Education Changed My Life

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“I’m a 35-year-old mother of three in another marriage, working as a waitress, and have let life around me ‘just happen.’ I exist in a reactionary state of mind.” That’s what I was thinking, 13 years ago, before I decided it was time to become proactive, make choices and take control of my life.

Today, I have completed three two-year degrees with honors and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a GPA of 4.0 with my Bachelors of Science in Occupational Safety and Health – this coming from someone who swore she would never go to college. I also work for NASA as a Quality Assurance Specialist.

So how did I get to NASA? How was I offered a job as a Quality Assurance Specialist for the International Space Station Division? How am I so blessed to be able to have fun eight hours a day, five days a week, and get paid doing it? It is not something that “just happened.” I worked very hard, studied even harder, and ignored everyone that said it couldn’t be done. But the very first step was making the decision to go to school to attain my goals and become financially independent.

“I worked very hard, studied even harder, and ignored everyone that said it couldn’t be done.” 

When I decided to take control of my life, I started out with small goals – after all, at that point, I had never even made any goals. I wanted to increase my income and have a schedule that allowed me to be home with my children at night and on weekends and holidays. I knew of other women in the secretarial field who were doing well for themselves, so I decided to go to a community college for a two-year degree in office administration. But even the decision to go to college was not an easy one. It meant taking on being a full-time student while working full time and raising three boys with some family support and backing.

While in school I found a flier announcing that NASA was looking for secretarial co-ops – or people to share a secretarial position. I thought, “What the heck. I’ll give it a try.” To my amazement, I was hired. I think all of Brevard County in Florida where I live heard my scream when I got that call offering me the job. I actually made a choice and things were happening.

I was so fortunate to be assigned to the Safety and Quality branch for the International Space Station. While working, I finished my degree with honors and was offered a full-time secretary position. I think all of Florida heard my scream when that happened! I worked very hard at my job and loved every minute of it. I truly never could have imagined how exciting and fun my job would be. I actually enjoyed going to work. But then, over time, it started to become stagnant and I felt that I wanted more. For the first time in my life, I actually felt the need to learn more. I loved what the quality field did and I wanted to become a part of that team. So every opportunity I had, I took technical classes that NASA offered and then decided it was time to go back to school. This time I graduated with my two-year degree in Aerospace Technology.

“I continued to push through the barriers and found the right people who believed in me, who saw what I had accomplished ,and knew what I am capable of doing.”

But as I began trying to become a Quality Assurance Specialist, things did not fall in to place easily. I only seemed to hit brick walls along the way. My administrative leader – a woman – told me that secretaries could not move over to the technical field and that it hadn’t worked out in the past. I became even more determined and refused to give up. After all, I was now making the choices to live my life. I continued to push through the barriers and found the right people who believed in me, who saw what I had accomplished and knew what I am capable of doing.

Now, here I am, 13 years later, still having fun at NASA as a journeyman-level Quality Assurance Specialist. My job is so diversified and it has allowed me to experience so many new things. I have worked with some of the greatest payload developers flying science in space; and I have had the greatest time working as a part of the launch and landing teams. I was extremely fortunate to be a part of the last few shuttle missions and work through the shuttles’ retirements. I have now achieved a stage in my career where managers seek me out to support new and upcoming projects from multiple NASA Centers. They come to me – just an average waitress and mom of three who decided to make a change.

If I – a waitress and mother of three – can sit here 13 years later and be in awe of what I do every day, anything is possible. All you need is faith, family support and belief in yourself to make things happen.

Despite all of this success, my greatest accomplishment in life happened just one-and-a-half years ago. For the first-time ever, my mother told me she was proud of me and how hard I have worked and how far I have come in life. My mother recently passed away after a battle with stage-four lung cancer and I will never forget what she said. To hear those words from her meant more to me than anyone could ever understand.

“Sometimes it’s easier to sit on the sidelines and live your life reacting to what comes your way. That is not living, it is merely existing.” 

Deciding to make a change in my life was one of the scariest and hardest things I have ever done.  Sometimes it’s easier to sit on the sidelines and live your life reacting to what comes your way. That is not living, it is merely existing. Taking the plunge into the unknown was one of the best choices I have ever made. And I have found that making the choice to ignore boundaries – both personal and professional – has been and always will be the best choice for me. Barriers are simply bumps in the road. Proving myself as a qualified Quality Assurance Specialist as both a woman in a predominately male role and also coming from the secretarial field, was a challenge, yet one I plowed through headfirst. I couldn’t have imagined these changes more than a decade ago, but I have embraced it and loved every minute of the journey.

 

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Cristine Andes is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Cristine Andes waitressed for eight years before she decided it was time to make a change in her life for financial stability and self-fulfillment. She now works at NASA as a journeyman-level QAS.
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