Dr. Mae Jemison, First Woman of Color in Space, Calls on Student Body to Pursue Their Passions

C.Munn/The Phillipian

Jemison studied both chemical engineering and African and Afro-American Studies at Stanford.

Astronaut, educator, Peace Corps volunteer, physician, dancer, and Lego minifigure, Dr. Mae Jemison spoke about her life and experiences as the first woman of color in outer space last Friday evening at the Cochran Chapel.

Linda Carter Griffith, Assistant Head of School for Equity and Inclusion, took the stage to recount the impact of “A Better Chance Andover,” the program that worked to bring Jemison to campus.

The organization was founded in 1963 to give students of color around the country the opportunity to attend college preparatory schools across the nation and attend college after graduation.

The chapter established in 1967 at Andover High School is the longest standing chapter of the organization. It brings students from around the country to live in a house in the town of Andover, Mass., and attend Andover High School.

Jemison explained that her childhood and upbringing in Chicago, Ill. in the 1960s came to represent a time of creativity and expansion, along with the right to participate. She recounted fearing for her father’s safety as a black man as he walked around Chicago at the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, especially due to the police order to ‘Shoot to kill.’

“I remember when I was growing up the thing that was quoted to me all the time by my parents, this was in grade school was ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.’ They can be harmful, but you have to decide where you want to be and you have to push on that, and that’s the resilience you have inside, and it’s really important, that we look at the fun stuff,” said Jemison in an interview with The Phillipian.

When asked about her hard days, and the challenges of forging a career in NASA as the first woman of color in space, Jemison shifted the question and instead chose to highlight what she described as the fun and excitement of her career.

“One of the things I’m really worried about is I always get asked the questions about hard days, what about the fun stuff that’s how the stuff happens, like learning how to fly T-38s, or learning new parachute training, or doing training in scuba diving, or when I got to as a little kid I went outside and studied the stars, in camp and programs like that,” said Jemison.

“What I’m really worried that my generation did, which was terribly unfair to y’all, is that we told you all to scope the focus in on the ‘woe is me’ questions. You can find a way to get through things because there’s something that offsets it with the joy in it,” she continued.

Will Orben, Instructor in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science, spoke about his admiration of Jemison’s many achievements in an interview with The Phillipian.

“She worked super hard and had to really focus on her education. Also, I love that she served time in the Peace Corps, and then came back from that and then suddenly is pursuing life as an astronaut. I found her pretty inspiring,” said Orben.

It was early events like playing with Barbies as well as doing chemistry sets, that laid the foundation for Jemison’s multifaceted life. As a child, she said she decided she wanted to go into space, but she did not necessarily know she wanted to be an astronaut. She explored various fields of work all of which she has decided helped her feel as though she was where she wanted to be.

Not all of these are the most conventional path to the space program; she spent time working in various postings for the Peace Corps, remembering Sierra Leone fondly. She was on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, doing work during the day that she never thought would advance her towards spaceflight.

It wasn’t until she was going through the process of astronaut selection that she learned the attractiveness of an applicant who had experience with needing to be available constantly. Although space might be the furthest field she has explored, she took the opportunity to join a scientific research mission to Antarctica and urged the audience to take on any opportunity offered. She stressed the importance of undertaking, “What makes you feel where you want to be.”