It’s one thing to be a stellar student. To be interstellar, however, that’s a whole other ballgame.
Sixteen-year-old Maria Ribot shows the world what an interstellar student looks like by dreaming big and keeping her head in the clouds. Recently, she attended the Honeywell Leadership Challenge Academy at the U.S Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. She was one of the few students across the globe chosen to participate in the program in February and March.
This year, Honeywell sponsored 292 students from 41 countries and 27 states to attend the two, week-long programs. The Academy aims to challenge 16 to 18-year-olds with activities in STEM leadership skills, such as building, coding, computer sciences and astronautics.
“I was skeptical that (I would) get in,” Ribot said. “I heard that it was a global camp with people from all over the world coming. I couldn’t imagine how many people were going to apply to this program and I thought I’m just going to apply and do my best and see if I get in.”
Ribot is no stranger to taking chances. Originally from Puerto Rico, she came to the U.S when she was just 10 years old, after her father got promoted at his position at Honeywell. She didn’t speak any English and described the experience as a “major culture shock.”
“When I moved to Virginia, it was very different,” Ribot said. “When I got there and I saw how people acted and how people spoke — they didn't speak my language and I was just freaking out because I thought, ‘What if I never blend in?’”
During her first day at school, she got lost finding her class, didn’t know how to open her locker or even ask for help.
“It was just a feeling of hopelessness,” she said.
Although she was enrolled in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program, she still felt lost and alienated from her peers, who were at times less than welcoming because of her accent and background. Even the “interpreter” the school provided didn’t speak Spanish. After feeling scared and alone, she decided she wouldn’t let the relocation get the best of her.
“I decided to just get past that,” she said. “(I would) move on and try to learn as much as I can in as little time as possible.”
So, she did. Ribot worked and studied and managed to learn English in only six months. Not only did she learn the new language, but she achieved more than many of her native speaking peers by getting on the A-B Honor Roll her first year at her new school, in her new country.
Shortly afterward, her father was transferred to Jacksonville, so she moved to her current home state. When he heard about the space program through his work, he encouraged her to apply.
While at the Honeywell Leadership Challenge Academy, she participated in challenges such as simulated astronaut trainings, shuttle missions, moonwalks and even a centrifuge simulation that put 3.2 Gs of force on her, equal to three times her body weight. Ribot said the experience felt like her “face was melting off.”
Never an underachiever, Ribot also won the program’s Leadership Award for her ability to keep a cool head and direct her teammates during simulations. She credits her levelheadedness and leadership skills to her experiences as an older sister.
“I knew people were freaking out over the whole situation (during a simulation),” Ribot said. “Automatically my brain switches to like, "They need to calm down and look at the problem and look for a solution and get going.”
Currently in the 11th grade, Ribot said when she graduates from Nease, she plans to pursue pre-med. She said she has dreamed of doing this, “since she was little.” When asked if she is going to be a “space doctor,” she laughed.
“Sure. Why not?” she said. “Space is so undiscovered. I could study so much.”
She added emphatically, “I don’t have to be an engineer to fly.”