Leland Melvin’s pathway to a career as a NASA astronaut took a highly unusual detour through the National Football League. But first came a high school football game with a college scholarship at stake.
With his team down late, Melvin couldn’t hold on to a potential touchdown pass in front of a homecoming crowd and a University of Richmond scout. But the story doesn’t end there. His coach responded by calling the same play again. Melvin caught the second ball, securing a victory and the Richmond scholarship.
“For the students in here, that is the message to you,” he told a rapt audience on Wednesday morning. “We have all failed at something. We all still fail at things. It’s not that you fail, it’s that you keep going.”
Melvin, who voyaged to the International Space Station in 2008 and 2009, was the keynote speaker at the inaugural OC Pathways Showcase, held in Hangar 244 at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine. The event, featuring innovative displays from local schools, colleges and businesses, drew about 300 educators and industry leaders to celebrate the college and career partnerships established during the first year of OC Pathways.
As we’ve previously mentioned here, OC Pathways is an initiative that brings together schools and businesses to create sequenced coursework that combines rigorous academics with career preparation. It also offers work-based learning opportunities for students and empowers educators with 21st-century learning strategies. Led by OCDE and Saddleback College, the program was established in 2014 through a grant from the California Department of Education.
In just a year, more than 8,600 local high school students have participated in OC Pathways programs across six industry sectors, which include health care, biotechnology, engineering, advanced manufacturing, information technology and digital media. At the community college level, more than 12,500 students have enrolled in OC Pathways courses, earning more than 600 certificates and 85 degrees. (You can read more achievements here.)
“I believe that we can attribute these initial accomplishments, and the great accomplishments ahead, to the unparalleled levels of collaboration between Orange County secondary and postsecondary partners that have been forged by OC Pathways,” Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares said at Wednesday’s Showcase.
The program has only been in existence for a year, he added, “but it has set very high goals.”
Saddleback College President Dr. Tod A. Burnett also delivered remarks, as did OC STEM Executive Director Dr. Linda Christopher and Max Gardner, president and CEO of the Orange County United Way.
And of course there was Melvin, who spoke about his own personal pathway, which led from Lynchburg, Virginia to the NFL — he had brief stints with the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys — to the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which twice transported him to the final frontier and back.
Not many can boast professional football and space travel on their resumes. But long before he did either he was simply a curious kid helping his dad convert a bread truck into a family camper — and learning important lessons about what is possible.
Melvin said it wasn’t until he and his father rewired the vehicle, installed bunk beds and painted the exterior that he could envision the truck as a serviceable motorhome.
“How many times do your students not see past what’s right in front of them?” Melvin said. “They don’t have the vision to see that next step or that next career, and so it’s important that this community ensures that we pull back the blinds and let them see that these things that they are doing right now can lead to a career in your company or your organization.”
The high school and college students in attendance appeared ready to launch their careers right away. Many displayed their technical achievements in STEM fields, lining the hangar with impressive exhibits, including handmade aerial drones and experiments that use data from real satellites.
Toward the end of the showcase, four students took the stage to field questions about their career paths from Dr. Mijares and Dr. Burnett, including Dana Hills High senior Stephen Tedena and Saddleback College student Leah Jamison, whose stories are documented in brief videos here and here; and Century High senior Rosa Yanes and Saddleback High senior Denise Garcia, who participated in an exclusive summer internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
We’d encourage you to check out these videos to see how OC Pathways is specifically impacting local students. And you can learn more about the initiative by visiting the OC Pathways website.