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Mentor Appreciation: Life-Changing Guidance
This is the first in a series of stories in which students and employees at NASA's Langley Research Center pay tribute to their mentors.
By: Christie Funk

As most students are, I was nervous upon arriving at NASA's Langley Research Center.

What would the expectations be? How could I live up to them? Would I fit in? What if I failed?

Thank goodness for mentors.

I learned the value of a mentor when I arrived at NASA Langley as a LARSS (Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars) student in the fall of 2008.

Walter Silva

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Walter Silva, a senior research scientist in the Aeroelasticity Branch helped mentor Christie Funk, who came to NASA Langley as part of the LARSS (Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars) program.

Boyd Perry

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Boyd Perry, former assistant branch head in the Aeroelasticity Branch, now retired, also helped mentor Funk.

I was placed in the Aeroelasticity Branch, led by Stan Cole, under the supervision of two mentors: Dr. Walter Silva and Mr. Boyd Perry III. Silva is a Senior Research Scientist in the branch and Perry is currently a Distinguished Research Associate, having retired at the end of 2012. Prior to his retirement, Perry served as the assistant branch head.

It is through the combined efforts of Silva and Perry that I progressed through the LARSS program and into SCEP (Student Career Experience Program), evolved from a business student with a passion for aviation to an aerospace engineer with a strong sense of confidence relative to my skill set and potential, and turned a 15-week internship into more than four years of experience.

It is with the utmost respect and admiration for these two individuals that I write about their contributions as mentors to STEM education, NASA's missions, and my personal success so that the significant impact that mentors have on students is recognized and congratulated.

A mentor is defined as a wise and trusted advisor or guide, an influential supporter, master and teacher. Mentors serve a very important role, not only as sharers of knowledge, but as inspirational leaders who encourage future generations. They generously sacrifice their time and energy, while exercising patience and understanding, for the sole purpose of improving someone else's life. Their acts are selfless and generally without monetary reward.

Mentors are extraordinary people.

When I arrived at Langley, my mentors quickly put me at ease by explaining that the opportunity I had been granted was put into place to encourage learning and promote growth. They assigned projects related to my coursework that were challenging, rewarding, and that invoked creativity and innovative thinking.

As the days, weeks, months and years went on, I was given direction with the freedom to learn at my own pace, all the while knowing that support was readily available when needed. My mentors offered praise for my accomplishments and provided encouragement during challenging times. They always gave indication of their faith in my abilities, and therefore inspired my belief in myself.

Silva and Perry encouraged me to participate in other STEM-related activities around the center, opening more doors for me to network with others and expand my knowledge of NASA’s missions.

"As a NASA researcher, I feel it is an important responsibility to teach and mentor our eager and enthusiastic students. Our primary product as a research organization is knowledge. We should, therefore, be prepared to share that knowledge with our colleagues and the future generations of NASA researchers.

Having served as a mentor for many years, I feel that the most important trait for a mentor is to be willing to learn. That may not sound correct at first, with the expectation that it should be 'willing to teach.' However, based on my experience, the best mentors are those with enough experience to be able to share knowledge but with enough humility to be willing to learn. There is no room for arrogance in mentoring. Mentoring demands an open mind, patience, time, and an ability to empathize with the student's perspective.

Teaching and mentoring has been and continues to be one of my most treasured activities at NASA and outside of NASA. In teaching and mentoring, I learn as well."

— Walter Silva

They took great care to see that we met frequently to discuss my progress and they were always quick to lend a helping hand when I had questions about my schoolwork. They taught me how to be resourceful, manage my time wisely, prioritize, write technical papers, deliver presentations, cope with pressure, strengthen my skills by learning from my mistakes and to persevere in the face of adversity.

These actions were not required of them, but the exceptional thing about these two individuals is that they welcomed me into their branch even without having an engineering background and then put forth tremendous effort, sacrificing their time and energy, to ensure my success.

Their efforts were successful as I graduated with a master's in aerospace engineering in December of 2012. This personal achievement is one of the many that I share with my mentors, knowing that I couldn’t have accomplished it without them.

Silva and Perry have influenced numerous positive changes in my life during the time I have known them. I am grateful for their efforts, and I am truly inspired to follow in their footsteps.

Every time an opportunity is provided, encouragement is extended, and knowledge is shared, Langley mentors are making a difference and changing lives.

Mentors are extraordinary people.

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman