Confidence: the feeling needed to accomplish the impossible. Throughout her life, Dr. Mae Jemison trusted in the power of confidence in order to accomplish scientific greatness. On March 29, I had the opportunity to hear about her greatness and all the baby steps that came along with it during an interview hosted by the Black Student Union and The Society of Black Engineers here at the University of San Diego. Through the interview, Jemison shows what can happen when oppression both racially and gender-wise is challenged and the success that can be achieved when Black people but more specifically Black women are allowed to thrive in their chosen career paths.
Dr. Jemison accomplished many great things in her career. At the young age of 16, she attended Stanford University to pursue a degree in Chemical Engineering. During her time there, Chemical Engineering was an extremely white male dominated profession and being the strong young black woman she was, no one had faith in her. Many professors encouraged her to switch her major to Biology so she could become a nurse but Jemison had bigger aspirations than that. When she went to school, the major we know today as Biomedical Engineering didn’t exist yet; so instead Jemison decided to make this major on her own. Upon graduation she made the decision to attend medical school at Cornell University so she could challenge herself and prove she was as strong as she knew she was.
During her time in New York, Jemison worked hard as a medical student but also continued to pursue her love for dance. She grew up doing professional dance and continued this passion during her college years and had the opportunity to become a professional dancer and join a company. At this point, Jemison had a decision to make and decided science was the path her life needed to continue on because dance will always be a hobby she can pursue but becoming a biomedical engineer and taking care of people was her calling during this time. Medical school taught her a great deal and she ended up finishing but didn’t go in the normal path most would. Jemison had a very strong urge to travel abroad so she joined the Peace Corp. She served in Liberia and Sierra Leone from 1983-1985. There she was able to gain more knowledge by working in an impoverished country and learning to adapt with little to no supplies. Upon returning to the states, Jemison had one more thing that she wanted to accomplish. She wanted to go to space. Jemison applied to the NASA astronaut program and was one of 2 women accepted and the first ever African American woman accepted. She worked as a mission specialist on her mission in 1992. In the later parts of her career she found that the reason she was chosen over every other applicant was due to the diversity in her career and mainly the time in the peace corps showed the committee she had resilience and was built for space.
Dr. Jemison’s accomplishments are examples about why the freedom to pursue a career is necessary. During the time that she lived in, it was common for a woman to have to stay at home with the kids and not be given the chance to work. This idea of unequal treatment reminded me of a quote from Freedom On My Mind. “It looks like … a male-dominated world…. Somehow the male comes up and gets the attention. Others seem to just respect male leadership more. I think the men have always had the edge.(pg. 843)” Thelma Glass, one of the members of the Women’s Political Council during the Civil Rights Movement stated this powerful quote to describe the struggles that women were facing and how they will never truly gain the respect they deserve. Jemison had many instances where men achieved the upper edge simply because they were a man but it never stopped her from working. During the interview, she shared this anecdote from her times in college when a professor discouraged her multiple times from pursuing her dreams of both medical school and a degree with chemical engineering. He stated over and over again about how being a doctor was a “man’s work” and that she should work in an easier field such as a nurse. This conversation was a driving force for Jemison’s career choices and was the flame that guided her to scientific greatness.
Dr. Jemison pursuing her chosen career path has allowed for significant scientific advancements that are contributing to the economic state of our country. In 2011, Dr. Jemison earned a grant for a project called “100 year starship”. The mission of this project is to be able to figure out a way that we can travel outside of our galaxy and explore what is beyond. As stated directly in the mission statement, “The challenge of traveling to another star system could generate transformative activities, knowledge, and technologies that would dramatically benefit every nation on Earth in the near term and years to come.” As stated, this project is serving two purposes: advancements in space exploration for the future and a common ground for nations to come together. Space exploration has always been seen as a competition between countries instead of a solution for peace. Jemison’s project however is something that is embarking on untouched territory and can be a chance for a solution of peace between countries at war. Exploring what is beyond our galaxy could benefit the economy by opening up potential solutions to problems plaguing our world such as the damage to the environment. It is still unknown if there are other inhabitable planets for humans in other galaxies and this project is working to find out if there is a planet and if this solution is found then it opens up avenues for not just the United States but every country. With this incentive, the importance of countries working together to research solutions to help further this project is extremely important. This incentive also capitalizes on a solution for peace because countries at war can’t agree. This common ground could help ease tensions and flourish into a relationship that can develop trade and other economic incentives that benefit each country equally.
In conclusion, Jemison’s trailblazing actions and being able to challenge racial and gender standards made history in not only women’s history but primarily African American women’s history. The future she paved for African American women is something that wouldn’t have happened without faith in a dream. During an interview with MUSAU, Jemison stated “The best way to make dreams come true is to wake up.” This quote I feel sums up her interview perfectly and is something I plan on implementing especially in my college journey. So many young students such as myself enter college without a single clue on what they want to do. We all have passions and aspirations but they are often shut down and turned away by the expectation of the real world that in order to be successful you need to have a good-paying job that will support a family. This stigma needs to be broken and instead confidence in dreams should be encouraged and supported. As the old saying goes, if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life and this is an important lesson I learned. Jemison did what she loved everyday and had the confidence that her love would be enough to not only accomplish greatness but make history and redefine standards. Mae Jemison should forever be remembered for her contributions to space exploration and is an inspiration to every woman with a dream.