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Meet: Connie Gennaro

Outreach Coordinator, Mars Public Engagement
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Image of Connie Gennaro

Who I am
My name is Consuelo Gennaro. My nick-name is Connie. I was born in Los Angeles, California. I was raised in Fremont, California. I attended John F. Kennedy High School in Fremont my Freshmen and Sophomore years. In high school I was considered "weird." Back when I was a kid there weren't the terms "geek" and "nerd" that would have been the best to describe who I really was. I was definitely an honest to goodness nerd. I loved science and going to school. I dreamt of going to college someday and I would use up my spare time helping my science teacher with chores and cleaning up the lab. When I was a kid it wasn't cool for a girl to be smart. And it certainly wasn't cool for a girl to like science. The "cool" boys didn't like that. I didn't care. I was going to be me. I wasn't going to let peer pressure dictate who I was.

I didn't quite fit in with the other girls. Most of the Mexican American girls were in gangs. That wasn't for me. The Anglo girls were kind of hung up on boys and obsessed with becoming cheerleaders or at least trying to act cool. That wasn't for me either. So here was this Mexican American girl that was weird and didn't quite fit in. So I hung out with two guys that were also social outcasts for being really smart and hung up on science.

One of the highlights of my high school years was going on a field trip to NASA Ames. Only four kids from each high school in the Bay Area were chosen to go on this amazing event. I was one of them! (Being a nerd really paid off that time). It was a very big event. There were even three governors from other states visiting NASA Ames that day. Everyone got to see a U2 Spy Plane take off that day. What a sight that was! I can still remember it as if it happened yesterday. I observed the people working there. But I didn't dare to imagine myself working at NASA. It seemed way out of my reach, just as hard as imagining touching that U2 Spy Plane that flew away so high and so fast. It seemed way out of my reach.

Before my junior year of high school my parents decided to move to Mexico. They had lived and worked in the U.S. for almost thirty years but they missed their family in Mexico. So my Dad sold our home and moved us away. Although I had been raised in a very traditional Mexican American home and I spoke fluent Spanish it didn't prepare me for the huge culture shock. After all I was an American. This wasn't my country. I love traveling. But living in another country is way different from visiting it on vacations. The hardest thing was that my father radically changed. He became a complete macho Mexican. He decided that after I finished high school I would not go on to college. He wanted me to stay home and learn to keep house so that I would become a good wife someday. This was a devastating blow! I begged and pleaded with him. He wouldn't budge. None of the women in the family of my generation or in the generations prior had gone to college or high school. Few had even finished elementary school. So why should I go? As far as he was concerned I was pretty educated. What was I going to do? I was an American in a foreign country. For various reasons, which I won't elaborate on, the Mexican colleges and universities wouldn't allow me to attend their schools. One major reason, I had no support of any kind from my parents. In Mexico as it is in most foreign countries scholarships are only given to the citizens. So I was stuck. What a blow! I had always dreamt of going to college! What would I do?

I decided I would teach English. At this, my father became very angry and disowned me. I mustered up all the courage I had and looked for a job. I found a position in a private school teaching first and second graders English. In the evenings I took classes to become an English Teacher. To make a very long story short over time I got my teaching degree. The irony of it all was that I became faculty in the very colleges and universities that hadn't allowed me in as a student. Life is funny some times.

I decided to return to the United States when I was 23. I had been very happy and very successful being a teacher. But I really wanted to travel to Europe so I decided to come back to the U.S. and earn some dollars to help me on my future journey.

I wound up working at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) first as a receptionist, but over time I became editor of two publications, Forefronts and the Faculty Information Listing. The goal of these publications was to promote Caltech's top researchers to the many Fortune 500 companies that contribute financial support to Caltech across the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan. In this position I worked closely with the faculty, scientific and engineering community to translate the technical aspects of their research into public-friendly ideas and language. I was also the assistant to the Caltech Events Coordinator.

From Caltech I transferred over to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) which is of course a NASA Center! Who would have thought? I sure didn't! If someone would have told that little Mexican American girl back at NASA Ames during that special field trip that she would one day be working at NASA she would have said they were pulling her leg!

What I Do
I am now an outreach coordinator for the Mars Program. Although I do not have a degree in public relations what got me this position was the combination of all of my life experiences. Having been a teacher, events coordinator, and an editor with graphics experience gave me a well rounded experience for this position. At first when I saw the job posting I thought, "Should I try?" I really hesitated. I wasn't a public relations person. But I submitted my resume anyway. What was the worst they could say? No. If they said, "No" I wouldn't be any worse off. So I did it and got the job!

It's great! I do many events some even at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. I loan out models to museums. I deal with VIP visits at JPL. So I have gotten to meet very interesting people. I lead the Mars Area effort for JPL's Open House. I have gotten to travel and do outreach at great places like Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I have seen several spectacular launches. It has been fantastic.

What I love most is dealing with kids. I love when they visit JPL. I love seeing the wonder and awe in their little faces. I particularly love to roll an eight-wheel prototype Sojourner rover we have over them. It has rubber tires and the kids just love it. Adults do too! Isn't that an irony too? I was once myself a kid visiting a NASA Center and now here I am leading the tours. Life has so many surprises!

What I like least about my job is not having enough time to do everything I want to do! There's always so much going on.

Over my career at JPL I have been the recipient of three JPL NOVA Awards. Two in excellence, and one in innovation and improvement. I have also been the recipient of NASA's Space Flight Awareness Award.

My Family
Image of Connie and her familyI am married and live in Pasadena, California. My husband's name is Terry, and we have a precious three year old daughter named Ashley. We also have two dogs, Arie and Meisha.

By the way, my father finally came to terms with the fact that I was going to pursue a career. Both my parents are now my greatest supporters and are very proud of me.

My Advice to Students
Follow your dreams! Don't let anyone set limits for you. In reality, the person who will set the most limits for you is you. A very wise person once told me, "Aim for the stars. If you don't hit the stars then maybe you'll hit the moon. If you don't hit the moon, maybe you'll hit the woodpile. If you don't hit the woodpile and all you do is fall flat on your face you will still fall forward." So go forward! It doesn't matter if you fall. You can get up, dust yourself off and try again. You can achieve whatever you want if you really want it.


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