Ellen Ochoa makes fourth visit to Pasco school carrying her name

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJune 6, 2012 

The four eighth-graders and officers of the Associated Student Body of Ellen Ochoa Middle School were a well-oiled machine Tuesday as they escorted the namesake of their school through the halls.

The Pasco students ushered astronaut Ellen Ochoa from classroom to classroom as she visited each for about 10 minutes to answer questions, her guides speaking up when there was time for only one more question before escorting her to the next classroom.

One girl always made sure to have a bottle of water available for the school's guest, asking if she wanted any after each classroom visit.

"They told us she'd be here for our eighth-grade year," said student body president Karen Valencia, 14, as they waited outside a classroom. "But we didn't know we'd do anything."

It's the fourth time Ochoa, now deputy director of the Johnson Space Center in Texas, has visited the school named in her honor, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary during her visit. It was a day of celebration, capped with an assembly where former students talked about how their education affected their lives, and Ochoa played her flute with the school's band.

But the importance of education was the underlying theme of the day, with Ochoa and former Ochoa Middle School students telling how important their teachers and studies have been to where they are today.

"If there's anything I can say to students by coming to a school, I want to," Ochoa said.

Pasco school officials named the school after Ochoa to honor a leader in the Hispanic community. Ochoa's parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico. She was born in Los Angeles and grew up outside San Diego. She was NASA's first female Hispanic astronaut.

The bulk of Ochoa's time Tuesday was spent answering student questions. Students asked what she ate in space, how dangerous her missions were and how it physically felt to be in space.

"It's something you miss when you're back on Earth," she told a sixth-grader.

But she also talked about her education, how in addition to graduating from high school, she went to college for 10 years, earning her doctorate. Then she spent five years as a research engineer before she was selected for the astronaut program and another three years before she made it into space for her first of four missions.

"My education was key to me getting this job," she said.

At the assembly, students who attended the school spoke of where they were in their lives, some saying they were students at Columbia Basin College studying education or music theory. One had graduated last year from Washington State University in Pullman with a civil engineering degree.

Ochoa said a lot changed at the school since her previous visits but that it still had a quality staff helping students succeed.

She said she never met an astronaut when she was in middle school, but she did as a graduate student and that the encounter made an impression on her. That's why she said its important for her, and other notable figures, to continue visiting students at Ochoa Middle School and inspiring them.

"When (students) can draw parallels between your life and theirs, it's important," she said.

The four eighth-graders who escorted Ochoa around the school Tuesday said they aren't necessarily aiming to be astronauts.

One, though, does play the flute and peppered the astronaut with questions about her instrument. Another, student body vice president Natalie Vazquez, 14, said she enjoys math and science, just like Ochoa does, and that is enough inspiration for her.

"All you really have to do is believe in yourself and hope," she said.

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com

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