When Victoria Garcia was growing up, her mother always said the sky was the limit. Now, Garcia’s mom tells her she’s “gone beyond the skies.”
Because Garcia works at NASA. Her specialty is space.
Garcia, who was born profoundly deaf, is a lead system engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Her road to success wasn’t easy, but she learned to work around her disability.
“Because I was trying to be realistic about my deafness, I thought I knew my own limitations,” Garcia said in an email interview. “It turns out that what I do for NASA now far exceeds my old expectations for my future.”
NASA wasn’t the only one that noticed her hard work. Palmer Trinity School, her alma mater in Miami, did too.
Members of the school’s community nominated her for this year’s “Head of School” Award, which is given to an an alum who has “accomplished something extraordinary” in the community, said Patrick Roberts, Palmer’s head of school.
After researching Garcia, the school’s Alumni Awards committee — made up of current staff, former faculty and other alumni — unanimously selected her, he said.
“Victoria is ... working at NASA, which is a major accomplishment on its own, but the fact that she has been able to do this despite being deaf is truly extraordinary,” Roberts said.
The Cuban-American Garcia grew up in Miami, loves vaca frita and always tries to plan a visit to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park (otherwise known as El Farito) in Key Biscayne whenever she visits Miami.
She has a knack for building and fixing things. But she never thought NASA was a possibility.
“NASA was something that was so far out of my realm,” Garcia said. “It wasn’t even a possibility for me.”
Growing up, she briefly wanted to be a veterinarian, then a cyber cop. When she graduated high school, she moved away for college to study computer programming at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. She changed her major to mechanical engineering.
During college, she interned with Benét Laboratories, a research and development section of the U.S. Army, in Watervliet Arsenal, New York. When she started job hunting, she was searching for a company that built cars, helicopters and planes. But she was running into a problem.
“I was applying for jobs, and when several companies emailed me to request a phone interview, I would explain that I am deaf and need to use a relay operator. Most of them never responded,” Garcia said. “It was quite the setback for me.”
She learned about Entry Point, a program that offers summer internships in STEM for students with disabilities. But she didn’t want to use it.
“My good grades should be enough, so I didn’t want people to hire me just because I am deaf,” she said.
But there was a slip-up during an in-person interview. Garcia, who reads lips, says she misunderstood a word the interviewer said and answered a different question. The interview ended shortly after. That’s when she decided to apply to Entry Point — and she’s glad she did.
“It wasn’t about them hiring me just because I am deaf. It was about smoothing out the interviewing process for both of us so that they treated me like any other applicant,” Garcia said. “I understood everything and responded just like any other applicant.”
Then NASA came calling with an internship at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.
That’s when the pieces clicked.
“I realized that working for NASA is a possibility for me,” Garcia said.
Garcia went to Georgia Tech to continue her studies, and graduated with a master’s in mechanical engineering.
In 2008, when she was 26, the space agency hired her as an aerospace systems engineer.
She wrote code and used virtual reality tools to develop and simulate models of launch vehicle propulsion systems and the life-support system for an astronaut habitat. For most of the past eight years, she worked on the Space Launch System, the newest and most powerful rocket NASA has built, according to NASA.
Now, at age 36, she is a lead system engineer for the Hydrogen Sensor Project within the Environmental Control and Life Support System. Garcia is working on a “crucial program” that provides and recycles air and water for the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, said a NASA spokeswoman.
Her role is to work with several teams to identify what work needs to be done, resolve issues and make sure the launch vehicle or payload is safely built and on time.
Garcia said she’s come a long way over the years but still finds herself struggling at times.
Meetings are difficult, she said. But NASA has accommodated her with real-time captioning. She also speaks to people one-on-one before or after the meeting to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
“Vicky never let her impairment stop her from striving toward any goal she wanted,” said Adrianna Truby, Palmer Trinity’s academic dean and one of Garcia’s former teachers.
“She learned to read lips at an early age and quite simply worked harder than most to excel in school,” Truby said. “When she met with problems, as she surely must have — as all students do — she created solutions.”
Garcia landed at Miami International Airport late last month to visit Palmer Trinity. It was her first time stepping onto the school’s grounds since her graduation 18 years ago. She regrets not visiting sooner.
Stopping by one of the school’s assemblies, Garcia shared her story with students and encouraged them to work hard for their goals, even if the path to their dream is not direct. Later that night, she was awarded for her own journey of perseverance during Palmer Trinity’s homecoming reception and alumni awards.
Garcia thanks her mother, her role model, for always saying she could overcome anything. Now, Garcia has a similar message for her 3-year-old son and the rest of the younger generation.
“I’d like to tell the younger generation to find their limits, and then go beyond them.”