Shaneequa Vereen: From SENC to NASA, now documenting our journeys into space (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
HOUSTON, TX (WECT) - Shaneequa Vereen, who grew up in the Brunswick County community of Bolivia, is currently a Public Affairs Officer and Live Mission Commentator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Houston, Texas. When you compare the numbers, it is quite a jump. When Shaneequa graduated from South Brunswick High School in 2009, the census put Bolivia’s population at around 150 people. Now she works at an agency that employs more than 17,000.
“Growing up, and even in high school, I didn’t hear much about NASA,” Shaneequa said in a recent interview from her office at NASA. “I heard about (Shuttle) Columbia, I heard about the (Shuttle) Challenger, but there wasn’t a daily reminder. Now I hear kids say ‘I want to be an astronaut’ and ‘Ooh, I want to do rocket science!’, I’m like ‘That’s great, because at eleven I had no clue about being an astronaut or working at NASA or a rocket scientist’. Just because I think it wasn’t on our radar in Brunswick County.”
What was on Shaneequa’s radar was a thirst for knowledge. She says her parents, Patricia and David Floyd, fueled her desire for reading and answered the myriad of questions their daughter seemed to ask about everything. She took advanced classes in school, did a dual enrollment in Brunswick Community College while in high school, and walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma with a desire to know more. She left for college with a dream of becoming a doctor.
“I was going to be pre-med undergrad and go on to be a doctor,” she says. “I found out very quickly that I did not like blood and I was like ‘Doctor is out! I don’t like the sight of blood, guts and that kind of stuff so doctor is not going to work’.”
After graduating from North Carolina State University with a degree in Psychology, Shaneequa made what she now calls the best decision of her life. Her fellow N.C. State grad Portia Keyes had gotten an offer to work at NASA after an internship and was moving to Houston.
“She (Portia) said ‘I’m going to Houston’, and I said ‘I’m going to Houston, too! Let’s go! I have no job yet. I have about two months of rent set aside. But I have faith, I’m gonna go and something great is going to happen!’ That’s the feeling I had, that it was time to go,” Shaneequa remembers.
That was 2014. Shaneequa says she worked at a couple jobs until someone urged her to apply for an internship with NASA through its’ Pathways Program. Although a little older than many of the other student interns, the 27-year-old was accepted in January of 2018, while also pursuing a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Houston.
“It was daunting, because I had already been out of school for four of five years,” she says about going back to earn the MBA. “I was already onto my second career-type job. From 7:30 to 4:30, I went to work every single day, and from 6:00 to 9:00 during the regular school year, I was on-campus, in class, three to four days a week. I ended up completing it in about 18 months.”
The NASA internship opportunity came in the Stem Engagement Public Affairs office, and led to a full-time PAO position with the agency starting in October 2018. She is part of the team documenting NASA’s missions into outer space, working alongside some of the brightest and best minds in the world.
“The most incredible thing about working for NASA has got to be the people,” Shaneequa says. “If you ever talk to a rocket scientist, or talk to an astronaut, and you just hear their stories about who they are, what they’ve done to become these amazing people, it invigorates you and makes you want to be a better person. They’re pretty extraordinary. Some of them dove into the deepest of oceans, have climbed the highest mountains.”
Shaneequa had a high-profile role in last November’s SpaceX launch from Kennedy Space Center. She reported from Mission Control for NASA’s pre-flight webcast. You can see the video on NASA’s YouTube channel.
“That’s the largest thing I’ve ever done for NASA as far as on a broadcast scale,” she says about the program. “I knew it was going to be big because this is the first time we’re launching from American soil in almost a decade. We have great partners in SpaceX, and they wanted to roll out the red carpet, and they did.”
Shaneequa is aware of the impact her achievement can have on the next generation of young girls of color in rural America, who may think they can’t achieve their dreams.
“I had an email, and it was from a complete stranger,” Shaneequa told me. “She was like ‘I am so proud of you!’. She basically said ‘I never thought that I would see someone who looked like me on the television for NASA. I’ve always been a NASA nerd, (astronaut) Mae Jemison is my hero!’, and all these great things. Just by being me, on the platform that I have, that made me feel like I made it. I’m doing something worthwhile. If I can show one little girl, or one little boy, that you can have a name like Shaneequa, you can have brown skin, you can have curly hair, you can have all these things that for a little while weren’t seen as professional. You can still be all these things and still be good enough. You can still be at a place where I can inspire others.”
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