Going Far: Yairette Quinones uses internships to reach the stars

Quinones charted her path to NASA through carving out her own internship experiences.

Thursday, September 16, 2021
Written by: Emily Hollingshead

Between NASA hoodies, branded mugs and child-sized spacesuits, an 8-year-old Yairette Quinones’ curiosity was ignited. After their move from Puerto Rico, her father worked at the Orlando International Airport and while Yairette and her mother waited for him to finish his work, she would spend time in the Kennedy Space Center store.

Though her love of space and engineering only grew as the years went by, she admits, “I never thought I’d get to NASA.” In this instance, she’s glad she was mistaken.

Charting her Flight Plan

I would do all my homework on my iPad mini and drive to McDonald’s at 1 a.m. to turn in assignments or drive to Starbucks at 5 a.m. to work on projects. 

Yairette Quinones.

Quinones’ dedication to her education is evident, and while she did not grow up with a computer, that certainly did not stop her. “I didn’t have a phone until I was 15,” she said. “I would do all my homework on my iPad mini and drive to McDonald’s at 1 a.m. to turn in assignments or drive to Starbucks at 5 a.m. to work on projects.”

With a love of building things and being in charge, she gravitated toward the STEM field naturally, but figuring out just what in STEM she wanted to do was harder. She started in civil engineering, but after getting her first internship experience under her belt with Siemens, she began to rethink and briefly considered architecture.

Yairette Quinones stands in front of the blue NASA globe at the Kennedy Space Station.
Quinones at the Kennedy Space Center.

Always one to research her decisions, it was oddly a chance encounter that altered Quinones’ path. Sitting in a Chipotle talking to her mom about her uncertainty and next steps, a man overheard and suggested she consider Seminole State College of Florida. “I didn’t know this man at all and he felt it in his heart that he needed to share this information. It was so useful and it was very important to my life and I don’t even know his name,” she said. She went home that night and researched the College, seeing if it offered her a way into project management in the engineering field. She found exactly what she was looking for in the Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering Technology.

Not only did the program offer the coursework she wanted, taking classes at the Robert and Jane Lee Campus at Oviedo offered her the convenient class times so she could continue to pursue internships year-round. While doing both work and school was hard, Quinones pulled inspiration from her classes. “Being in a classroom next to a mother who has three kids and wants to go beyond – that to me is very motivating.” Now she is on track to graduate while she continues her internships and looks ahead to completing her master’s degree at UCF.

Internship Launchpad

Knowing how much jobs value experience, Quinones made a point to start seeking out internships as early as possible. “Never underestimate the power of getting at least one internship experience on your resume, or even volunteering at something that is engineering-based or research,” she said. 

Yairette Quinones stands in front of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex sign. She is in a plaid blazer.
Quinones wanted to diversify her resume,
so she applied for a NASA internship.

One struggle she had to overcome was deviating from the path her initial internships set her on. Since she began with jobs that leaned more in auditing and sales, she wasn’t getting the engineering internships she wanted. Aiming to diversify her resume, and taking advantage of the new remote-work conditions, she applied for a NASA internship and fulfilled a childhood dream.

“One of the coolest things about the NASA internships is that you can be from any major degree and sign up,” she said. While she initially landed an internship in their IT department, it wasn’t engineering. “They wanted me to find my passion within NASA and guided me towards the areas I wanted,” Quinones said. She now has gotten closer to the work she wants to do and is an intern for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate that focuses on space operations related to human exploration in and beyond low-Earth orbit.

Stellar Opportunities for All

What matters is the experience and how much you are willing to give.

Yairette Quinones.

Her time interning at NASA led her to even more engineering opportunities, and Quinones has been rewarded for her persistence. She took part in the Space Trek Academy, an educational company located at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where students can experience hands-on STEM programs, including the weather balloon experiment Quinones worked on. In fact, when she discovered the opportunity, it seemingly already had passed her by, since the applications were closed. Not letting that stop her, Quinones reached out. “I emailed them and asked if there was a spot, and they said yes!” She said, “Not a lot of people sign up for these things, and they should. It was a fantastic opportunity.”

Led by her curiosity and drive for experience, she continued to take part in all the relevant programs she could find, including the NASA L'SPACE Academy, a free, online interactive program open to undergrads interested in space careers, and the Florida Space Grant Consortium that provides space-related fellowships, scholarships and internships. 

Ultimately, when it comes to internships, Quinones’ greatest advice to others is to know your own worth. “Know what you want. And know the value that you have so that you never get underestimated, and don’t let anyone else underestimate you based on where you are from – whether you come from a large university or a small one, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience and how much you are willing to give.”

Looking for an Internship?
Whether you are looking for an internship or are looking to see what career paths are possible, Seminole State's career development center can help. To access resources or make an appointment with a career counselor/coach please visit Handshake.

About Seminole State College

Seminole State College of Florida, established in 1965, serves nearly 30,000 students across six sites in Central Florida. A comprehensive college, Seminole State has awarded more than 100,000 credentials, from bachelor's degrees to high school diplomas, and offers more than 200 degrees, certificates and programs designed for success. For more about the college, visit seminolestate.edu
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