Access-ing Space Through Education

Four Access program alumni from India learn about space exploration in an exchange program at the University of Alabama.

Paromita Pain

December 2022

Access-ing Space Through Education

(Left to right) Arham Hayat, Humayu Rasheed, Mobrak Sama and Hafsa Fahad from Jamia Milia Islamia School in New Delhi went to Huntsville, Alabama, for a 12-day space exchange program.

Four first generation learners from New Delhi have returned from the United States, inspired after a 12-day exchange program at the University of Alabama. These students launched rockets, tracked hot air balloons and created professional connections during their time at the Space Academy for Youth in the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, funded by the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna.

Hafsa Fahad, Humayu Rasheed, Arham Hayat and Mobrak Samar are all recent graduates of the Access program–a two-year global scholarship program supported by the U.S. Department of State. The program provides English language skills to talented 13- to 20-year-old students.

They were selected for the UNVIE Youth Space Program and represented India earlier this year. Twelve Access alumni from six countries made it to this camp to learn about U.S. involvement in space exploration, as well as the expertise developed by American researchers. This program was initiated in recognition of the Apollo 11 mission’s 50th anniversary.

The Youth Space Program is a new program initiated in 2020,” says Rachna Sharma, Regional English Language Specialist at U.S. Embassy New Delhi. This camp is meant for alumni of the English Access Microscholarship Program who aspire to pursue their higher education in STEM disciplines, she adds.

Meeting selection criteria

A key selection criteria for this program was that the applicant be an Access alumni, besides being a STEM student. “In 2020, this program had a really short selection timeline, so this opportunity was circulated among the Delhi/North India Access programs only,” says Sharma.

The program had to be deferred to May 2022 due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, there were weekly virtual sessions and group interactions in the intervening period and all candidates participated regularly in all group assignments. “The Indian group impressed the camp facilitators with its extraordinary diligence and commitment,” says Sharma. “And therefore, it was named the ‘PERSIST’ group.”

Understanding space science

The students were selected because of their interest in space and allied subjects. Hayat, a computer science student at Galgotias University, who wants to study pure mathematics, says the exchange program helped him understand the work that goes behind each successful launch. “I learnt that it takes more than one team to send a mission to space and that those in the shuttle are a small part of the whole undertaking.” Rasheed, an aeronautics engineering student, agrees, saying it gave him deep insights into how astronauts prepare for space missions.

For Samar, who is completing her bachelor’s degree in botany from Indira Gandhi National Open University, the tour of the research center was exhilarating. She says she could experience history–touching and examining parts of space shuttles that have returned to Earth. The instructors there would tell the students about the story behind each part, she says.

The time spent in the program, says the 18-year-old, were her most important 12 days. In fact, initially Samar used to wake up at 4 a.m. because she was so excited and did not want to waste time.

“Once the program started after all the participants had arrived, our routines were strictly time-bound,” she says. The participants were given a set of tasks that they had to complete using their skills, teamwork and application. The participants also worked on the simulator, built spacesuits and rockets, and executed a launch. “One time I was the ISS commander, and we did it so seriously. It did not feel like we were a part of the simulator. To me, it seemed very real.”

Deep cultural immersion

The Access program helped Hayat improve his English-speaking skills and build confidence. But it was the Youth Space Program that showed him how far he had come and how much more he could achieve. “The various centers for climate image systems and solar energy were amazing,” he says, adding that he had the chance to work on a hot air balloon and track it. Meeting the other participants from different countries was certainly a unique experience. “I didn’t know that I could joke in English before,” he says.

Samar did not think she would ever make it to the program. “Huntsville was beautiful,” she says. “We would wander around the various centers, and I wish we had a chance to see more of the United States.” Working with the other participants led to interesting exchanges. “When I met them, I thought they were amazing and very cool,” she says. “Later I realized that they were thinking the same about me.”

The participants experienced American culture and life through visits to art festivals and shopping malls as well.

For Rasheed, this program brought home the importance of collaborating with others and learning to work in a team. “Borders and boundaries don’t matter because you are here to complete a task according to the specifications given,” he says. “We celebrated Eid in the camp and shared chocolates with everyone.”

Networking opportunities

This program, the participants feel, have really opened up new vistas for future careers. The networking and alumni opportunities that this program has provided will help them access other programs. As Samar says, “Earlier I used to study to get good marks but now I am inspired to pursue excellence.”

Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.


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