A first-generation Native American college student and freshman at Bismarck State College was selected to join a five-week scholars program at NASA.

Chantel Andrade was chosen from 348 community college students from across the nation to take part in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars project. Last week, Andrade and other students in the program took a four-day trip to the John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss., where they met with NASA experts and formed teams that established fictional companies interested in Mars exploration. Her team, the "Naviators," won.

"It was really fun and exciting," said Andrade, who is completing her first year at BSC. She plans to get a two-year associate's degree then transfer to the University of North Dakota for aerospace engineering.

Andrade, 21, grew up in White Shield. She's an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and is the first in her immediate family to go to college.

The NASA project is partially funded by the Minority University Research and Education Program, whose goal is to recruit groups traditionally underrepresented into STEM fields.

For the past 20 years, Native Americans and Alaska Natives have earned about 1 percent of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering fields in the U.S., according to a recent report from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Native American women make up 1 percent or less of science and engineering jobs.

Last spring, Andrade decided to apply for college after she connected with Tracey Baker, a mentor with a program at UND that aims to connect members of the Three Affiliated Tribes with employment and educational opportunities.

Baker works for UND's RAIN (Recruitment-Retention of American Indians into Nursing) MHA Education Pipeline Program. She's a mentor based at the Bismarck State College campus and enrolled member of MHA Nation, as well. In the fall, Baker helped Andrade apply for the program at NASA by writing a letter of recommendation.

“I thought it was a perfect fit for her," Baker said. "(This is) something she's very passionate about and interested in."

Andrade said her interests since she was young have aligned with "anything to do with space." But in high school and up until college, she still wasn't sure what career to pursue.

Andrade came upon the NASA project while searching online for opportunities for students in their first year of college. She applied in December for the program and wrote an essay on why she wanted a NASA experience, including her childhood hopes of going to space and being a proud Native American in a STEM career, maybe one day working with NASA. She also completed a several weeks-long course through NASA. She did well in the course, earning a 100 percent on the quizzes. After completing the course, she found out she was going to visit to the Stennis Center.

During her trip to the Stennis Center, she rubbed elbows with NASA experts and learned about aerospace research. Andrade said her team built a small rover out of a Lego kit and created a company plan.

"On our last day, we had a presentation and tried to get funding from NASA headquarters for our company," Andrade said. “When my team won the competition, we got … little pins, and they played us a message from Peggy Winston, who gave us a congratulations and good luck video.”

Andrade said her dream job would be being apart of NASA's upcoming exploration plans by building a spacecraft as an aerospace engineer or becoming an astronaut. She was encouraged to apply for internships at NASA, which she may do for next spring.

Baker said she was not surprised when she heard Andrade got into the NASA program and thinks Andrade has a bright future ahead of her.

“I was very proud that she had the courage to apply," Baker said.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)