An invitation from NASA — again

As a Portland Community College engineering student, Tara Prevo had an internship at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA called her back for a second internship this fall. (Photo: PCC)

It’s a “Tara Recall.”

Last spring, Tara Prevo, an engineering student at Portland Community College (PCC) in Oregon, finished a term-long internship with NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. It was an opportunity for Prevo to get valuable hands on astronautical engineering experience assisting on projects connected to NASA’s Mars rover program.

During the internship, she won first place in an intern fair for developing a new kind of passive valve for use in outer space for missions. Prevo’s success earned her a call back from NASA to participate in a second internship this fall in Alabama to help engineers further develop the valve.

“When they called me on my cell phone, I thought whether this was real life or a dream,” Prevo said of the honor. “They told me they are recalling me, a ‘Tara Recall.’ I feel I have a lot to offer on this project, and this is absolutely a once in a lifetime thing.”

A new direction

Not many community college students ever get a second chance to work at NASA for a term, let alone get chosen at all. But Prevo is not a typical student. Before college, she was living in a pickup struggling to get by. But when she enrolled at PCC in 2014 to change the trajectory of her life, her academic career took off — she has been an Oregon NASA Space Grant Consortium Community College Partnership Scholarship recipient all three years at PCC while completing her engineering transfer degree at the Sylvana Campus. Now, she is transferring to Portland State University (PSU) to earn her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and plans to join PSU’s Aerospace Society, known as PSAS.

“I didn’t know I could do all this at a community college,” said Prevo. “I knew you could go far here, but I had no idea this far.”

A pioneer and role model

What’s even more remarkable is that she is doing all this in a field where there aren’t a lot of women. That fact alone didn’t stop her and she tells other women that it shouldn’t stop them either.

“Being the only girl in classroom can be hard and scary,” Prevo cautioned. “But take a deep breath because there are more and more women in STEM now, and it’s becoming an accepting place. I’d tell them to not give up on science.”

PCC has a long history with NASA internships and scholarships. In 2015, the college had 27 of the 40 statewide Oregon NASA Space Grant Consortium Community College Partnership Scholarship recipients. And PCC has had its share of students winning national NASA scholarships or internships similar to what Prevo experienced — Andrew Jozwiak, Abram Morphew and Tanner Hageman in 2015, Dave Coulter in 2014, and Maithy Ngo in 2011, to name a few examples.

However, few can hold a candle to Prevo’s academic success at PCC where she sported a 3.9 grade-point average. The 27-year-old Michigan native is an active member of the national two-year honors society Phi Theta Kappa and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Prevo’s success ties into the college’s effort to facilitate excitement for underrepresented students, like young girls and women, for STEM programs. In the various fields of science, engineering and manufacturing, PCC is preparing students to meet tomorrow’s challenges by building its core STEM and STEAM offerings and encouraging students to excel beyond the college. Opportunities like earning NASA scholarships and internships hits at these core values.

“This networking springboards them into a lifelong journey of scientific and engineering explorations and projects like no other program can do,” said physics faculty Toby Dittrich, who is the associate director of the Oregon NASA Space Grant Consortium. “These honors are a very effective tool to facilitate their future.”

About the Author

James Hill
James Hill is a communications specialist at Portland Community College in Oregon.