Shooting for the stars — UI first-generation student lands NASA internship with help of TRiO Program


Justin Ruehl grew up fascinated with space, and said he often found himself daydreaming about worlds beyond his own.

It was a curiosity the University of Idaho senior said he couldn’t shake as he got older.

“I’d always found space amusing,” Ruehl said. “I really wanted to work for NASA, and get the chance to explore that unknown.”

Two weeks ago, Ruehl’s dream became reality.

Ruehl said after he toured NASA’s facility last year in Huntsville, Alabama, he was encouraged to apply for an internship.

“It was quite the process, just step after step,” Ruehl said. “But, it was definitely worth it.”

He said he applied for more than 10 spots, starting in January, and in April he was offered an official position for the summer.

Ruehl said UI’s TRiO Program was instrumental throughout the application process and believes he wouldn’t have received the job without their help.

Academic Success Counselor Mercedes Frausto said TRiO is federally funded and includes a number of programs that vary based on a student’s age and needs. Students are provided with academic workshops, tutoring, personal support and financial aid.

Frausto said the program operates in conjunction with Student Support Services and serves a wide range of students, including first generation, transfer, non-traditional, low-income students and students with disabilities.

“With me being the first kid in the family to go to college, I was able to use these resources to my benefit,” Ruehl said. “Mercedes was such a big help to me … I couldn’t have done it without her.”

Frausto, who is Ruehl’s adviser, said when he came to her and told her about the internships, she immediately contacted Susie Johnson, the program manager at the Idaho Space Grant (ISG).

“When I had the meeting with Justin, he told me about this and I got excited,” Frausto said.

Ruehl said Johnson was able to use ISG funding to ensure a position within NASA just for him.

“Even though I applied for 10 separate jobs over there, the (ISG) was willing to use their money to create a job for me,” Ruehl said. “I have so much gratitude to TRiO and (ISG).”

Ruehl said his internship will allow him to work with smaller rocket satellites and the “interface” which controls them.

He said he hopes the internship will lead to a more permanent position with NASA after he graduates from UI in about three semesters.

“I’d love to be a fulltime employee … I mean, I think it’d be cool to be an astronaut,” Ruehl said. “Even if like I had a 50/50 chance of dying, I’d do it — heck yeah, send me to space.”

Ruehl said he also hopes that his opportunity can showcase the services and help TRiO offers students and encourage them to get more involved with the program, as well as taking advantage of such opportunities altogether.

“I was never really a good student in high school. I even struggled through college, too, but to be able to actually do something like this and not have the 4.0 grades like all the other smart kids, it really means a lot,” Ruehl said. “I think this shows that even though you’re not the perfect student, you can still reach for the stars … I mean I sure did.”

Olivia Heersink can be reached at or on Twitter @heersinkolivia

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