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Exploring New Frontiers

From his vantage point 200 miles above Earth at the International Space Station, former NASA commander John Herrington could not only reflect on the world he’d temporarily left behind, but on a life’s journey that proved anything but a straight line. And that journey – filled with hard work, tough choices and critical mentorship – is at the root of Herrington’s current mission: to inspire new generations of students interested in STEM disciplines to reach their life and career dreams.   

Herrington’s journey started in a small town in Oklahoma. After high school, he worked jobs that included construction before heading back to school and earning a degree in applied mathematics. He joined the Navy and became a commissioned officer – a top pilot – while eventually completing an advanced degree and gaining acceptance into the prestigious and competitive NASA astronaut program in 1996.

In November 2002, Herrington boarded the space shuttle Endeavor on a mission to the International Space Station, becoming the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to journey  into space. Herrington, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, took three space walks during the mission, helping attach a 14-ton girder to a station port during his 20 hours tethered to the space station.

Retirement from NASA has only meant new journeys for Herrington. He is chairman of the board for the American Indian Institute for Innovation, serves on the board of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, conducts STEM outreach as an ambassador for the Chickasaw Nation, and has biked across the country, speaking to students in an effort to boost participation in the STEM disciplines.

While settling in Lewiston, participation in a new program at UI’s College of Education was a natural fit.

Herrington became the first doctoral student in the new Indigenous Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (ISTEM) graduate program at UI. The program aims at providing accessible, relevant, graduate-level education to Native Americans. Herrington’s ISTEM research – part of a doctorate in Adult Learning and Organizational Leadership – looks at successful Native students, and attempts to identify key factors of success, including mentors, motivation and cultural influences.

“Native Americans are the least represented ethnic group in math and science in the U.S.,” Herrington has said. “A lot of research has been done on why students fail. What can make them successful is a harder question to answer, because very little research has been done on it. Instead of attacking the question again from the negative, I wanted to look at it from the positive.”

That academic work is an expression of what Herrington sees as his role in life for his post-NASA career.

“I think that’s where my responsibility is in the second half of my life – to motivate students, to inspire them,” Herrington said. “They can do something that they dream about doing, but they have to realize that there’s a path that they have to follow to get there. And it’s not an easy path, but it’s a path that’s realistic, and can happen, if you put forth your best effort and listen to people.

“That’s what I do.”

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