Even when his “first-choice” university declined to accept him, David Brown’s belief in himself never wavered. For the computer whiz kid turned tech-savvy teen, the sky was always the limit.
Until, one day, it wasn’t.
The Irvine Valley College alum’s potential broke through the stratosphere in the summer of 2018, when he was hand-selected by NASA for an internship at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The exclusive honor was the result of his participation in NASA’s National Community College Aerospace Scholars program, arranged in part by his IVC professor and biggest supporter, Carolina Kussoy.
“We have so many viable students who could apply, but I had to really look at an outstanding student,” recalls Kussoy, whose mind jumped immediately to a well-rounded, team-oriented student in her Computer Information Management program. “I could not think of a better candidate than David Brown.”
Brown’s flight path from disappointed college applicant to up-and-coming star followed an unusual trajectory. When he first enrolled at Irvine Valley College, he did so expecting to become a filmmaker. One semester into his program, however, Brown encountered a problem.
“I didn’t really enjoy film,” he recalls bluntly.
Starting over from ground zero, Brown wanted a field he could “get into” – a career path that was as enjoyable as it was sustainable. That’s when he decided to turn his yen for technology into a career in computers.
“I’ve always been playing around with computers since I was a kid,” says Brown, who tried out the Computer Information Management (CIM) classes at IVC and loved them. “I was practically my parents’ personal IT from when I was young.”
Immediately, his horizons began to expand. Starting with Kussoy’s introductory PC Applications class, Brown learned the crucial ins and outs of Microsoft software. Meanwhile, he was building experience and team skills with hands-on industry projects, like using Excel to plot stock market data for companies such as Tesla.
“The stuff we did in the CIM classes was really practical, which is what you want,” says Brown, who would soon add courses in IT, computer science and programming at his professor’s advice.
“CIM is probably one of the most versatile departments on campus,” says Kussoy. “Students take our courses, get certified in the software, and they can pretty much work anywhere.”
After a few semesters at IVC, Brown had developed sufficient skills to turn his childhood hobby into a hustle. After class and before homework, he’d perform freelance tech work, including computer repair, setup, and networking. He was making money, making progress toward his degree, and even getting in on the “Laser spirit” through activities with the IVC Games and Computer Science Clubs.
“I had some good moments,” Brown reflects. “I’m grateful for what I got out of [extracurriculars].”
He wasn’t done making his impact at IVC. Encouraged by Kussoy, the enterprising student went on to win tournaments in Speech and Debate, while also helping IVC’s Model U.N. team secure Outstanding Delegation at the national finals in Washington, D.C.
“David is just that perfect combination of a student who takes the full advantage of the college experience,” says Kussoy, who admits that she had Brown’s potential pegged since day one. “What stood out about David was that he was always so eager in the classroom to learn and interact.”
Each semester, Kussoy helps connect students to internships with companies both local and long-distance. So, when NASA reached out to her to recommend students for its competitive National Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, Brown instantly came to mind.
“She wrote me a letter [of recommendation] for NCAS, which I truly appreciate,” says Brown.
That’s when things began to take off. During his final semester at IVC, Brown was accepted into an online competition in which students vie to spend four days at a NASA facility. For his entry, Brown wrote a paper about a potential mission to Mars, identifying the route most cost-effective and yielding of research opportunities.
He submitted his work and waited, but the summer passed by without event. Then, just a few weeks before he was set to begin Computer Science classes at Cal Poly Pomona, he received the news: he had been selected for an all-expenses-paid visit to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, on the western edge of the Mojave Desert.
For a kid who grew up around computers, this was virtual Valhalla. Brown took full advantage, spending his time exploring the world-class facilities and even competing in a rover design event.
He also collaborated on algorithms and explored computer logic with his NASA mentors, who were so impressed that they recommended him for an internship. With the backing of two NASA employees, Brown was accepted into his dream internship the following summer in Maryland.
“They treat you like you’re an actual employee, and they give you cool projects to work on,” gushes Brown, who learned and worked at the Center for three months. “I'm really glad I went to Goddard because I met a lot of cool people.”
As part of his out-of-this-world internship, Brown worked on a NASA supercomputer. He tested computational power and wrote complicated scripts to generate a Mersenne prime, a mathematical sequence often used in cybersecurity. If that all sounds like rocket science? Well, it pretty much is.
“A lot of David’s computer science, IT, and physics courses played well into this internship,” explains Kussoy, who still keeps in close touch with her former star student. “He’s an all-around geek, and he was made for this internship because he loves what he does.
“With this kind of opportunity, it’s one in a thousand.”
NASA didn’t stop calling. This summer, Brown was set to return to Goddard to work on virtual reality programming, before being forced to postpone due to the COVID-19 crisis. But as someone whose entire path began with a setback – that rejected college application way back in high school – he’s not about to postpone his broader plans.
Brown is set to graduate within the year, and afterward, he naturally has some big plans. One potential landing spot is “DevOps,” a set of practices that combines software development and IT operations, where he could design and write tools, as well as automate processes on supercomputers.
But even as he gazes into a rocket-propelled future, Brown refuses to forget where he came from. In fact, he considers the encouragement he received at Irvine Valley College as a primary fuel source for his life’s mission.
“Carolina is by far one of the best teachers,” says Brown. “I don’t think I would have gone as far as I have without her support.”