Russian Language Program Expands the Future for this Aerospace Engineering Student

Russian Language Program Expands the Future for this Aerospace Engineering Student

 

A group of students standing in front of an ornate Russian churchImmersed in Language and Culture. AE graduate student Nelson Guecha (fourth from the right) is seen here with his fellow travelers, all of whom were enrolled in Georgia Tech's Language for Business and Technology (LBAT) program in Russia. To keep his Russian current, Guecha often visits a farmer's market in Georgia where he has come to know some of the Russian-speaking merchants. When he was new to the United States, he learned English, in part, by working in a grocery store. "Grocery stores and markets are where you really learn how a language works," he said.


Nelson Guecha standing in front of some quotes on a wall  in the Modern Language building
Nelson Guecha

In the pantheon of dream careers, 'NASA astronaut' has always reigned supreme among students at the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering. Earn a seat on a NASA mission and you are guaranteed an adventure like no other.

But you should plan to learn Russian before you blast off.

A cooperative arrangement with the Georgia Tech School of Modern Languages is allowing AE students to add Russian to their aerospace engineering degrees - at the undergraduate and master's levels. While it may not guarantee a spot on the next NASA mission, the program does offer ambitious AE students an opportunity to remain competitive when the applications open up.

That's all Nelson Guecha has ever asked for.

"When the time comes, I will apply to the NASA astronaut program and see what happens," says the second-year AE master's student, who completed a Russian minor as an AE undergraduate.

"The odds might be long, but the odds have always been long for me. What were the odds that I would grow up in Bogata Colombia and now be graduating from Georgia Tech with a master's degree in aerospace engineering? I'll be happy to have those odds again."

Guecha waves off another improbable feat: learning Russian at an English-speaking educational institution, when his native tongue is Spanish. Language is meant to be understood by humans, he argues, so learning it should be a natural process.

For him, learning Russian was more of a practical consideration.

"It started out that I needed to find a humanities class to fulfill my undergraduate requirements at Tech, and I decided to try Russian," he said.

"The professors [in the School of Modern Languages] made it so easy to immerse yourself in the language. Right away, they made learning Russian feel as natural as learning your own language feels when you are a child. That encouraged me. After the first class, I still needed a humanities credit, so I took another class."

Nelson Guecha and a friend in front of an ornate building in Russia
Sight-seeing in St. Petersburg

After completing that second Russian class, Guecha  was hooked. When his Russian professors asked him to consider minoring (or double-majoring) in Russian, he jumped at the offer. Again, with palpable optimism, he explains:

"At Tech, as long as you are taking at least 12 credits, you can take as many classes as you like, so for me, I realized, this would work very well. I could continue my aerospace studies and learn Russian, which astronauts have to know. That doesn't mean I will necessarily be chosen for astronaut training, but it gave me the chance to put the possibility in the back of my head."

Keeping up with the demands of his aerospace major and his Russian minor took some creative scheduling, he'll admit, but it was very achievable. Guecha took two more 2000-level classes at Tech and then enrolled in the Language for Business And Technology (LBAT) program, which landed him in Moscow for an entire summer.

"When they asked me what my living preferences were, for my summer in Moscow, I said 'Just do not put me with someone who knows any Spanish or any English.' I wanted to speak nothing but Russian."

Meanwhile, back at Tech, Guecha continued to chip away at the would-be obstacles between him and his astronaut dreams. His grades qualified him for admission to Sigma Gamma Tau, the aerospace engineering honor society. He took scuba diving because he knew that astronauts have to demonstrate agility in weightless conditions. He worked with AE professor Dave Spencer on the Prox-1 satellite, and, later, did research on attitude estimation with Prof. Glenn Lightsey. Next semester, he is hoping to land an internship with NASA.

But Nelson Guecha is not setting himself up to be disappointed. Whatever happens with his NASA aspirations, there's plenty of ambition leftover to ignite something new.

"I take everything step by step," he says of his many pursuits. "In Colombia, I always had a goal in my head - NASA, JPL, SpaceX. But when I first went to college, studying aerospace engineering wasn't an option, so I studied industrial engineering because it was a good start. I didn't bury my goals. I just put them aside while I worked. They were always there. So when I got to the United States, I said to myself 'You can do more than dream now. You are not limited. Anything is possible.' And I still feel that way."

Nelson Guecha and another student in a Soviet-era space capsule in a museum in Russia
Seeing How the Other Half Flies. Nelson Guecha, left, got a chance to try out a Russian space capsule during his Georgia Tech summer abroad program.

 

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