MECC Student Reaches for the Stars in NASA Scholars Program


Emily Hjulstrom

Big Stone Gap — 20-year old Mountain Empire Community College student Emily Hjulstrom smiles widely as she recites one of her favorite inspirational quotes: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

The quote is entirely appropriate for Hjulstrom, as her hard work and persistence has earned her a spot in one of the top aerospace science programs in the country.

Hjulstrom is one of 200 students nationwide selected to participate in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Program, a five-week online learning experience that culminates with top scholars attending a three-day workshop at one of NASA’s facilities.

Hjulstrom, who has a 4.0 GPA and serves as the supplemental instruction leader and tutor at MECC, was nominated to participate in the program by MECC Science Instructors Carol Burkart and Tony Russo.

“After observing how much Emily put into her work study duties, class work and spending time in the lab to study I had no doubt that she would succeed,” said MECC Biology Instructor Tony Russo.

Born in Blacksburg, Virginia, Hjulstrom’s path to college is atypical. Describing her high school grades as “terrible,” she decided not to attend college after graduation and went straight into the job market. She lived in Long Island for a year and worked as a nanny and in other education-related positions before deciding to go back to college. Hjulstrom met her future husband, who is originally from Pound, Va., and moved to Southwest Virginia last summer. She enrolled at Mountain Empire Community College in the fall of 2015.

“I came here interested in astronomy and ended up really liking biology,” said Hjulstrom. “I was able to get a work study position with Dr. Burkart and I also tutor students in biology in the Learning Center and teach supplemental instruction. So, I’m a full-time student, and I work two jobs. It can be stressful and I’ve had a few breakdowns along the way. But I’m so happy to be here.”

As if she wasn’t busy enough, Hjulstrom had to enroll in a four credit web-based course at Oklahoma State University this spring to qualify for the NASA Scholars program. The course involved approximately 20 hours of work online, webinars with NASA engineers and scientists, and a group project planning a mission to Mars.

Hjulstrom was among a select group of the top students in the online class chosen to visit NASA’s Stennis Space Center April 11-14. She will work on a team project mentored by NASA engineers, attend briefings by engineers and scientists, tour NASA facilities, compete in a rover competition and much more.

Hjulstrom’s career goal is to become an astrobiologist, studying the potential of past and future life in space. Setting a goal and focusing all of your energy toward completing that goal has served as the primary motivator for her. She encourages other college students to do the same.

“A lot of people have told me I’m smart. But I don’t think that I am. I just work really hard and that is why I’m successful. I’m no different than anyone else. You just have to know what you want and be willing to work to get there.”