When Ferndale High School senior Wendy Gonzales was told she would appear on the Kelly Clarkson Show, she knew little about what would come next. She understood Comcast had told the show of her plans to study astrophysics, but that was about it.
Then, on June 21, Kelly Clarkson told Gonzales -- through video chat on Clarkson’s TV show -- that the student would receive a free insider tour of the NASA facility in Houston, a mentorship from a top NASA scientist and $1,000 in cash.
Gonzales was shocked.
“I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is real!’ ” Gonzales, 18, said after the Kelly Clarkson Show appearance. “It’s so much to take in.”
Gonzales, who earned her diploma from Ferndale High in June, has pursued a career in space study for much of her life.
After her family immigrated to the United States from Guatemala when Gonzales was a toddler, she became interested in outer space. But she knew being an astronaut was unlikely - Gonzales needs glasses to see properly, and she was worried about outer space’s impacts on the human body.
But a local librarian told Gonzales that there were more ways to work in the space exploration field than being an astronaut, and pointed her to some books on astrophysics. Being one of the passionate NASA staffers who safely guides astronauts to new frontiers became Gonzales’ new dream, she said.
“Maybe I won’t be in one huge chapter of a history book,” she said with a chuckle. “But if I’m, like, at a footnote, that’s perfect for me.”
Gonzales specifically noted two teachers at Ferndale High School who helped her pursue a career in astrophysics. One was biology teacher Beverly Kaufman, who Gonzales said was always welcoming and encouraging. The other was math teacher Zachary Hite, who piqued her interest in the math side of astrophysics.
“At that time, I only loved space -- math was ehh, just okay,” Gonzales said. “He brought me to what math really is, it’s a beautiful concept.”
When Gonzales was taking Upward Bound courses at Whatcom Community College last summer, she received an assignment to contact a professional in her future career path. So she decided to give NASA a call.
“I thought, go big or go home,” she said.
A few days later, Dr. Paul Hertz, the head of NASA’s astrophysics division, enthusiastically responded, and Gonzales interviewed him. Soon afterwards, Comcast asked Whatcom Community College if there were any STEM-focused students they could help, and the college recommended Gonzales.
From there, Comcast -- who owns the Kelly Clarkson Show -- and NASA partnered to give Gonzales a mentorship and behind-the-scenes tour of the Houston space station. Gonzales doesn’t know the name of the NASA scientist she’ll be partnered with yet, but she said Comcast has sent her some information on her future mentor.
“I read a lot of articles about her, about the work she’s done in the science community,” Gonzales said. “I’m just super excited to meet her and ask her so many questions.”
Gonzales is still waiting to receive her COVID-19 vaccine before traveling to Houston. But she’s thrilled to eventually tour the NASA facility.
“I get to see beyond what tourists get to see, that’s what I’m excited about,” she said. “I want to see the process.”
In the fall, Gonzales plans to return to Whatcom Community College and earn her associate’s degree.
“They have supported me for the longest time, and I really feel connected with them,” she said of the Bellingham college.
Afterwards, Gonzales hopes to earn multiple astrophysics degrees at the University of Washington, and then begin working for NASA. And there, she may play a key role in the next groundbreaking era of space exploration.
“If I get to be part of the Mars mission, bringing people there … that would be so cool, so much fun,” Gonzales said. “It’s just a huge leap, and if I’m a part of it -- oh my goodness, that would be amazing.”