EMCC Student Overcomes Odds Landing Prestigious Internships at NASA & ASU
Aubrey Barkley grew up in an abusive house.
“I didn’t know any better because that’s all I had ever known,” Aubrey said. “So I thought it was normal.”
The first-generation high school student graduated with a 2.09 GPA, yet, she had a deep love of learning and wanted to continue her education. But everyone told her college wasn’t for her and refused to even help her apply.
“I wanted to go to college, but nobody would help me,” she said. “They wouldn’t assist with transportation or any of the paperwork, and I was too confused and without a car to start college.”
She began taking on odd jobs, moved out, and found herself working as a receptionist in a skilled nursing facility just before the pandemic hit. She flourished and loved spending time with the patients so much so that she was named Recreation Director at just 21 years old.
“I was in charge of making sure nobody’s mental health declined due to a lack of interaction and stimulation,” she said. “I met with families, social services, and adult protective services, did evaluations, and did medical paperwork as well.”
But her thirst for more knowledge never waned. And then she came across an online advertisement for a NASA social at NASA Armstrong in California.
“I applied, because, why not?” she said. “What am I going to lose by just trying? Crazy enough, they picked me. When I saw the email, I was all alone, and instantly started sobbing. I was overwhelmed by the thought of being selected. It’s all I had ever wanted for my entire life.”
She went to the social and was able to board every aircraft, meet test pilots, and tour the facility.
“This is what made me tell myself I couldn’t give up, that I needed to stay strong and achieve my dreams,” she said.
Renewed with confidence, Aubrey started taking classes full time at Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC) while still working at the nursing facility. Once the semester ended, though, she decided to change jobs so that she could focus more on school. And when she put in her notice and told her boss that she hoped one day to work at NASA, he laughed in her face.
“I felt pretty upset, but also quite determined to prove him wrong,” she said.
And proving him and everyone else who doubted her wrong, she is. She’s not an astronaut yet, but she’s well on her way. Since she began attending EMCC in the spring of 2021, Aubrey has been a two-time NASA L’SPACE scholar, she has completed the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, and she participated in a virtual internship at NASA Glenn Research Center in Ohio.
“This was a dream come true,” she said. “I was the only community college student in my group, and it made me feel quite proud of how far I have come.”
While interning for NASA as a Communications and Outreach Support for Scientific Computing Visualization Lab (a long way of saying “Communications and Outreach for GVIS lab,” Aubrey says), she simultaneously completed Arizona State University’s (ASU) Biodesign Summer Internship working with graduate students researching mechanisms of cellular evolution.
“The exciting part of the ASU internship was after it was over, I was offered a part-time undergraduate research position in my lab,” she said. “I truly didn’t want to leave once I got there, and luckily, they didn’t want me to leave either!”
While taking classes full-time and completing multiple internships at once, Aubrey also served as EMCC’s Student Senator for the 2021-22 school year and was chosen to be one of EMCC’s Animal Ambassadors under the direction of EMCC Life Sciences Professor Dr. Jarod Raithel, someone she attributes much of her confidence and success to.
“Dr. Raithel was my BIO182 professor,” she said. “The first day of class, I walked up to him and told him I wanted to be an astronaut and work at NASA. He was the first person who didn’t sigh, scoff, or laugh at me. Instead, he smiled, and said that he too wanted to do that, and he wished he had pursued that dream.”
Dr. Raithel describes Aubrey as a truly exceptional biology student and Animal Ambassador.
“Honestly, in 15 years of teaching, I don’t think I’ve ever met a student more determined to achieve their out-of-this-world dreams than Aubrey,” he said. “What impressed me most about her was the incredible breadth of her intellectual curiosity — from exploring the possibility of life on Jupiter’s Europa to teaching young people ecological concepts in the animal lab. Her love for learning is contagious, and reminds me how fortunate we are to have students like Aubrey.”
Aubrey said Dr. Raithel is one of several professors and mentors at EMCC who never gave up on her, even when her mental health was severely impacting her coursework.
“They were so patient and kind, and due to this, I kept my GPA up and kept pushing through it all,” she said.
EMCC’s Stem Coordinator Liahla Roberts is another one who never gave up on Aubrey, pushing her to achieve her dreams.
“I always tell the students I work with, ‘Showing up is half the battle,’ and I mean that,” Roberts said. “When a student has no money, no car, and sometimes no safe place to run to, or call home, literally showing up fighting for their education is half the battle. So when I see a bright young student like Aubrey facing such difficult hardships showing up, the very least I can do is show up with her to cheer her on. Something so small like helping her practice a speech or showing up to an honors presentation — celebrating the moments with her, trying my best to do everything I can to show her someone believes in her because I truly do.”
Aubrey said Roberts is one of the people at EMCC who helped her the most, giving her love and confidence, while also teaching her how to become a better person.
“So many people doubted me,” Aubrey said. “I’d say out of every human I have ever told about my dreams and aspirations, only about six of them were kind to me about it. And you know what, that’s all I needed.”