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Crystal Palmer finds her dream job with NASA internship

Crystal Palmer spent the summer tromping in the woods and green space at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The Tidewater Community College student searched for endangered species and other wildlife, including sea turtles, piping plovers and peregrine falcons.

As a NASA STEM Takes Flight intern, Palmer became immersed in real-life work to protect the environment. “Working at NASA was an experience of a lifetime, and it changed my career path,” she said.

Palmer, 29, is working toward an Associate of Science at TCC’s Chesapeake Campus. She learned of the NASA internship from Kay Williams, director of the Open Door Project.

Palmer also collected and tested the pH of rainfall in creeks, wells and open burn sites on NASA property to be sure that ongoing projects are environmentally friendly. When not in the field, she worked on software to determine sea-level rise and how it impacts the mid-Atlantic region.

“Having people support and mentor you, that’s what builds confidence,” she said. “Before I thought I was walking through the college experience with a match to light my way. Now I feel like the light switch has been flipped on.”

Palmer left home in her mid-teens, leaving behind a difficult life. She survived by working odds jobs and waitressing. She later worked as an electrician apprentice and in a veterinary practice.

Palmer earned her GED in 2010. Soon after , she received a Pell grant to start her journey at TCC. A first-generation college student, Palmer received support from Open Door Project and TCC’s tutoring center.

“I figured a community college would help ease me back into the classroom, and I was so right,” Palmer said. “TCC is often underrated. So many people don’t know that this place is a great steppingstone to a four-year school. And the education you get here is the same as those schools.”

Palmer now has a message for those coming behind her. “I want them to apply for everything that sparks their interest, even if they think it’s a long shot. I never thought I had a chance with this internship. You think NASA and you think rocket scientists and astrophysicists! But I applied and got it. It’s always worth trying and seeing what happens.”

Palmer will graduate from TCC in May 2016 and continue at Old Dominion University to study environmental engineering and biochemistry. She will leave TCC debt free.

“TCC has absolutely changed the course of my future,” said Palmer, who hopes to parlay her internship into other opportunities at NASA.