A first-generation student from North Carolina will return to school in January feeling more motivated and better connected to her future thanks to time invested as a NASA Pathways Intern at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
Raquel Cervantes Espinosa, the first member of her family to attend college and a rising junior at Duke University, applied to the internship at NASA Stennis because of opportunities the site presented, such as working with large rocket engines. She admits to initially being nervous, having never traveled to Mississippi or the Gulf Coast area.
The electrical engineering major says she was welcomed with open arms. She grew fond of the diverse and highly skilled workforce that showed how her studies apply to working with NASA, which makes leaving after the fall semester bittersweet.
“It feels like NASA is really investing in me as an individual, and the people that I work with make it feel that way, too,” Cervantes Espinosa said. “I feel valued here and feel like I can grow with my career and degree studies in terms of what I want to do in the future. I really enjoyed my time at NASA Stennis during the fall and look forward to returning in the summer.”
During the fall semester, Cervantes Espinosa worked with test stand camera systems, including those in support of NASA’s certification test series of the RS-25 engine. The series will lead to production of updated engines that will help power future Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond on the SLS (Space Launch System) rocket.
“Raquel had a great first semester as a Pathways Intern learning about various electrical and mechanical systems,” said David Carver, deputy branch chief of the Electrical Operations Branch at NASA Stennis. “Her shining accomplishment for the semester was the new test operations video system that she helped design and bring online. The system will provide test engineers with new insight into the operation and health of critical propulsion systems. I look forward to seeing what she accomplishes in the future.”
The thermal visual cameras set up by Cervantes Espinosa at the Fred Haise Test Stand, where RS-25 hot fires take place, help ensure safe operations by allowing engineers to monitor key areas of the test stand, such as the liquid oxygen stalls and hydrogen systems. The cameras can also identify potential gas leaks not seen with the naked eye. Additionally, Cervantes Espinosa had the opportunity to analyze data and work on instruments that are used on the RS-25 engine.
“A lot of the experience I’m getting from working at NASA Stennis, a lot of the stuff I’m learning now, is really shaping how I see engineering differently than I used to,” she said.
The Duke student says one key takeaway from the fall semester was learning beyond electrical engineering and understanding how her physics minor can be applied in the aerospace industry – an industry she now wants to join following graduation.
On pace to graduate in 2026, Cervantes Espinosa said it can be challenging at times in unfamiliar territory, whether as an intern at NASA Stennis or as a first-generation engineering student.
“I would encourage other first-generation students to keep your head up and keep going,” Cervantes Espinosa said. “It sounds very cliché, but I think it’s really accurate for people like me and a lot of my friends who are first-generation students in engineering and beginning to immerse ourselves into the workforce and see what we need to do. Keep your head up, keep going, and really take advantage of such opportunities because they are out there, and people want the best for you and want to invest in you. You just have to go and seize the opportunity.”
The NASA Pathways Intern Program opens in the spring and fall each year with job postings on USAJobs.gov. The application windows open two times each year – typically around February and September.
For information about the NASA Pathways program, visit:
NASA Careers: Pathways – NASA
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