Two UCF students are among 43 nationwide who have been chosen to receive the inaugural Patti Grace Smith Fellowship for Black aerospace undergraduates.

Alexandria Baca, a first-year student, and Loubensky Baine, a second-year student, were selected for the new honor established to promote diversity in the aerospace industry.

The two were picked after applicants were vetted by aerospace industry professionals and corporate employers. They each earned a paid internship at one of the nation’s leading aerospace firms and $2,000 to go toward professional or school expenses.

“We are excited for the exceptional mentoring they will receive from leaders in the space industry, an industry which is inspiring the world in these challenging times,” says Professor Seetha Raghavan, director of UCF’s aerospace engineering program. “This achievement reminds us that everyone has a part to play in advancing diversity and empowering students.”

Baca: Don’t let self-doubt hold you back

Baca, from Las Vegas, will intern as an engineer at Virgin Galactic.

She is a first-generation college student and is grateful to follow fellowship namesake Patti Grace Smith “to be a part of the change she fought for.”

“I want to make something of myself; to be able to make my community proud and show them that if I, a young woman of color, can make it into a field that is less than 10 percent filled with individuals that look like me, then they have the strength and capacity to accomplish their dreams as well,” Baca says.

She says her time at UCF has provided her with opportunities to participate in numerous aerospace activities, including serving on a Students for the Exploration and Development of Space project with NASA and being a systems engineer for UCF’s “Eyes of the Pegasus” with a NASA team developing augmented/mixed reality technology to assist crewmembers on a lunar mission.

“These two experiences alone have allowed me to exponentially grow as a young engineer and collaborate with fellow Knights striving to innovate and make a difference within the aerospace industry,” Baca says.

She plan to graduate in Spring 2024 and enter the aerospace industry, as well as work toward a master’s degree.

Her advice to others who may want to pursue working in the field is to not let self-doubt hold them back.

“Let your passion, curiosity, inspirations, and talents propel you forward, past all of the factors that attempt to pull you away from the greatness you will achieve,” she says. “The industry is constantly changing and expanding, bringing unique opportunities along with it. You may not enjoy everything you do at first — but know that, without a doubt, there is a place for you in space.”

Baine: Fellowship will help build connections

Baine, who was born in Haiti and moved to Miami with his family when he was 5, will intern as an aerospace and systems engineer at Black Sky.

He said his time at UCF has pushed him to work hard to stand out. He is part of the EXCEL program at UCF’s Propulsion and Energy Research Lab and is a research student for Associate Professor Kareem Ahmed studying high-speed detonations.

“This fellowship shows me that there are people out there who do not know me, but want me to succeed, and are willing to invest in me and provide the resources to help push me forward,” Baine says. “As long as I work hard, get involved, keep my grades up and do my part of the success process, I will have the chance of connecting with people who are eager to provide me with the resources that they did not have when they were in my position.”

He says the fellowship also will give him a head start in the industry.

“Being able to intern at a major aerospace company gives me more time to learn the industry, understand engineering, and to meet new people and build connections,” Baine says.

The student says he goes through each day thinking of the life lesson he learned from high school engineering instructor Paul Kynder at Miami Lakes Educational Center, who told him: No one in this world is going to succeed for you. Stop complaining and make something happen.

He’s considering post-graduation plans, and says he hopes to either work at a major aerospace company or pursue a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. He also would like to become a pilot someday.

In the meantime, he says being part of the program’s inaugural class of fellows makes him feel like a pioneer.

“I am setting an example for the future classes of students that decide to apply,” he says. “My next task is to help recruit students for the second class of fellows.”

Fellowship is in honor of a trailblazer

In addition to UCF, students in the inaugural class of the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship are from MIT, Georgia Tech, Princeton, Purdue and several other universities around the country.

“These new Patti Grace Smith Fellows inspire us with their drive, their intellect, their work ethic and their deep commitment to advancing the state of the aerospace industry,” says B. Alvin Drew Jr, a retired Air Force colonel, two-time space shuttle astronaut and a co-founder of the fellowship in 2020.

The program’s name was chosen to honor the late aerospace leader who as teenager Patricia Jones overcame racial segregation. She was one of a dozen Black students to integrate Tuskegee High School and was a plaintiff in a landmark case that led to integration in public schools.

She held several jobs in the Senate Commerce Committee, Department of Defense and Federal Communications Commission. Her career was highlighted by leading the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Drew says the fellowship in her honor was established “to serve extraordinarily talented students who possess everything that is needed to thrive in aerospace, but who come from a community were talent has long been overlooked by our industry.”

The program says that while Blacks make up 13.4% of the U.S. population and 15.3% of undergraduate and graduate students, just 6% of aerospace and defense workers and 3% of aerospace executives are Black.

“It is an honor that our aerospace engineering students have been selected to the inaugural class,” Raghavan says. “Our faculty have been leading research and academic efforts to prepare our students for their role in the breakthroughs we are seeing in launch and space exploration.”

Story by Gene Kruckemyer, UCF Today