I had been going to the Science Center in St. Louis since I was 10 years old. It was the very first time I visited that riveted me. I couldn't believe this place was free to visit - anytime. I bothered my mother constantly to let me attend any and every event they held where I could catch a glimpse of something space-like.
I adorned my bedroom with drawings of rockets that I traced from my science and history books. I had a big glow-in-the-dark moon map that I had gotten in my telescope kit. I often glanced at the moon on clear nights, since our apartment faced the southern skies. I remember mentally mapping the phases of the moon, and remembering what each looked like as soon as I saw it.
I'd often talk about dreams of landing a ship in the Sea of Tranquility. It seemed like an awesome place to go, and the name itself symbolized a peace that I sought in my everyday life being in the projects of East St. Louis, Illinois. I never thought I'd own a piece of NASA paraphernalia until I bought my first NASA shirt in my 20s. I cherished and washed it every time it got dirty, wearing it until it became only suitable to be a night shirt.
So, it only seemed right when I was looking for a place to volunteer in my late 30s, that I would zoom right into the Science Center. I got the idea when I found myself, one day, just directing people around its main building. With volunteering, I'd find out about new exhibits and activities ahead of time, and I could do behind-the-scenes tours! I submitted my volunteer application and crossed my fingers.
After a standard volunteer background check and vetting, I chose the planetarium team. I was both nervous and anxious to get started, and quickly learned the standard routines. I sat in on all the planetarium star shows, trying to memorize each style of every presenter, and thinking of my own twist that I wanted to bring to them. And then within this last month, I began performing my own short show of about 15 minutes long, late in the day. Eventually, I plan to do full-length shows.
Throughout all of my experience, I listened, learned, and was encouraged by a variety of people. I was invited to get-togethers and had sit down discussions with almost every member of the team. One guy was great with communicating to little kids. Another is an academic powerhouse and would share his latest news and discoveries with us via email. One woman shared her love for the space programs and would often update us on the latest findings. Another knew the ins and outs of most airborne vehicles, while yet another was an expert in geological structures. We had fandoms that crossed over and would talk for hours about our favorites.
On the outside, we looked like different people who, had we not volunteered there, maybe our paths would have never crossed. We came from different parts of the area, had different types of family structures, and were different ethnicities. But we all had the same thing in common: we loved space, helping people, and being a part of something greater.
I learned that diversity and inclusion is much more easy to achieve when people's common interests are considered first, and then their ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation or gender identity is left as an ancillary fact. We all had the same outlook on life, and appreciated and supported each other as we traversed new endeavors in both our careers and personal lives.
Being at the Science Center taught me that being a NASA nerd was not only regular, it was encouraged. When I announced I was going to Space Camp this past June, I was met with both enthusiasm and helpful advice. Not one person thought it was dumb, a waste of time, or something frivolous. Everyone was excited for me when I got back, and I bought trinkets to give to my newfound family.
Diversity and inclusion is so much more than just a series of buzzwords; it's a worthy goal for anyone in any stage of their life. And certainly, a necessity when spending time with people who you see regularly. Take time to find your tribe.