Houston, We Have a Valencia Intern

Designing a mission to Mars may have helped Dolores Petropulos land in a place that once seemed equally far out – the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Now, the Valencia computer programming student is in Houston for a 15-week paid internship at NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

There, the 55-year-old Petropulos is working on the development and testing of software that can navigate and control the next generation moon lander.  At the end of her internship, Dolores will make a final presentation to technical staff in the Johnson Space Center engineering directorate, the team responsible for providing engineering design, development, and test support for space flight programs.

“This is the next generation moon lander,” says Dolores, of the project she’s working on. “It’s pretty cool stuff. It’ll be used on a robotic mission.”

Dolores’ journey to Houston really began last summer, when she read a college-wide email encouraging Valencia students to apply for NASA’s National Community College Aerospace Scholars program.  “It sounded interesting,” she says.  “It was an online class and you had to develop a mission to Mars in it.”

Based on her work in the online class, NASA offered Dolores a trip to the Johnson Space Center in October 2010. There, teams of community college students from across the country competed to create a robotic Mars rover that could, among other tricks, pick up a rock out of a water obstacle.  “Our little rover won the competition,” Dolores said. “Everybody else’s broke down at least once.”

That trip to Houston inspired Dolores – and ignited in her a new passion for robotics. “Once I won the trip to Johnson Space Center, and I got to see the next generation of space vehicles, the next generation rover, it got me very excited and made me realize that was the way I wanted to go,” she says.

When NASA officials encouraged the community college scholars to apply for internships with the space agency, Dolores checked it out – and sent in her application. Although she wasn’t selected for a spring internship, she learned over the summer that she would be going to Houston for the fall semester. The internship also comes with a $9,000 scholarship that she can apply to her living expenses.

Now Dolores is temporarily living in a Houston apartment furnished with mail-order furniture from Wal-Mart and an inflatable mattress – but she’s continuing to pursue her dream.

 “I was looking at the business end of computers, not something like this,” she says. ”When I first started at Valencia, I never thought I’d end up being a rocket scientist.”

This isn’t the first time Dolores has been a pioneer. After graduating from Valencia in 1974, Dolores joined the Orlando Police Department – and became one of 12 women on the force of more than 500 officers.

Even that took a leap of courage. Dolores’ parents didn’t finish high school — and her father didn’t want her to attend college. But Dolores went anyway, and graduated in 1976 with an associate of science degree in criminal justice. “My dad was adamant that I not go, but it was a choice I made and I told him that I hoped he would understand,” she says. “Later on, he ended up being very proud of me and what I accomplished.”

During her years on the force, she struggled with the timed tests required for promotions.  She practiced writing reports and memorized the law, but couldn’t pass the tests.  Jealous of other officers who’d earned their four-year degrees, Dolores began talking to a Valencia counselor about returning to college in 1991.

Dolores confided in the counselor, telling her what she hadn’t told others – that she’d had problems taking promotional tests while on the force. The counselor suggested she get tested for a learning disability, and when Valencia’s Office of Student Disabilities tested her, Dolores finally discovered the root of her problems. She has dyslexia – which means her brain doesn’t properly process symbols such as letters and numbers.

Armed with knowledge about her learning disability, Dolores began taking remedial math classes, one at a time, while continuing to work on the police force. With the help of tutors and professors, she gradually worked her way through the math curriculum, up to Calculus 3.  But she was sidelined in 1997 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, cancer of the lymphatic glands.

Even cancer couldn’t stop her.  Although she waited until 2009, when she’d retired from the police department, Dolores returned to Valencia, eager to study computer programming.  Determined to understand her disability and make the most of it, Dolores now regularly seeks out tutors or pops into professors’ offices to ask for help.

“All you have to do is go to the math lab and say the name Dolores,” said one of her professors, Hatim Boustique. “Everybody there knows Dolores.”

Other students tell Dolores that she’s got something they haven’t. But Dolores  and her professors say that’s not true.

“She’s a normal student – as far as performance,” says Boustique, who teaches computer programming and analysis. “She is not a quitter. If she does not understand something, she will live in your office. She used to come to my office hours, every single hour.  I gave her my full attention. If she does not understand something, she will stay and stay and stay until she understands it.”

For Dolores, who plans to attend Rollins College in fall of 2012 to finish her bachelor’s degree, Valencia will always be a special place. That’s because the college recognized her abilities when others didn’t, she says.

“It’s amazing that when I graduated from high school, I barely passed,” she says. “To see me now in Phi Theta Kappa, and being part of the honors program, is unbelievable.  The educational system in the public schools had actually failed me. Coming to Valencia was the best thing I ever did – both then and now.”

Dolores will return to Orlando in December and complete her dual degrees, an associate of science in computer science and an associate of arts degree in general studies.  Then she’ll transfer to Rollins. But she won’t forget Valencia.

“Valencia gave me my accomplishments that I have today and, for that, I’m very grateful,” she says. “I’m not saying they gave it to me on a silver platter. I had hard courses and very hard professors. But I’m finding and learning a lot of new things about myself, even at this stage in life.”