As a child, Anaelle Roc ’24 didn’t watch too much television but when she did tune in, she loved “How It’s Made” and “NOVA.” A first-year student at Pomona, Roc was recently selected as part of the inaugural class of Patti Grace Smith Fellows, a cohort of 43 Black undergraduate students who are interested in a future in aerospace.
As a Patti Grace Smith Fellow, Roc will be interning this summer with Relativity Space, an aerospace company in Long Beach, California. Established in 2020, the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship program awards each student with a challenging internship at one of the nation’s leading aerospace firms. It also provides them with a living wage, two hand-picked mentors and a cash grant of $2,000 to go towards professional or school expenses.
Roc grew up on Long Island, New York to immigrant parents from Haiti who came to the U.S. for college. She was enrolled in a Montessori school from an early age and she credits her Montessori education as having a significant impact on her identity. She says it allowed her to develop a deep appreciation for the world around her: “It’s why I’m so interested in space—it instills in me a sense of wonder.”
Roc’s parents nurtured her burgeoning interest in science and art—Roc was also an ‘art kid’ who was always trying to put together little experiments. Her parents took her to the planetarium to see a new show weekly and learn about the stars and the planets as a child. That interest in science grew throughout high school, and she shared her passion with younger students by mentoring girls in science programs at her former Montessori school. Inspired by the film Hidden Figures—Katherine Johnson’s story—she helped her friends found the Women in STEM club, becoming president during her senior year of high school. That same year, Roc visited Pomona for a preview weekend, falling in love with Pomona’s Physics Department and Estella Lab in which the department is housed.
“When I took my introductory physics course [at Pomona], our first bit was special relativity. Everyone kept saying ‘my brain hurts’ and it did, but when we finished this unit, I kept wanting to go back. I wanted to learn more. I was ecstatic,” says Roc. “I found a passion for these questions that seemingly broke our brains. It was the paradoxes, the inconsistencies and the search for profound answers that whet my interest and made me probe deeper.”Roc came to Pomona undecided but is now leaning towards a major in physics.
Roc is part of the Pomona Scholars of Math (PSM), a cohort-based program for first-generation and low-income students that provides them with weekly group meetings, individual advising sessions, peer mentors and enhanced course options. It was through PSM that she first heard about a new fellowship program accepting applications from first-year students and sophomores.
“One of the older students sent a message: ‘There’s this new cool-looking fellowship for students of color interested in aerospace.’ I looked at it, and I thought I don’t yet have any technical skills, I’m not going to get this but I’m going to try,” she says.
After a rigorous interview process, Roc was selected along with 42 other Black college students from across the country.
Roc says she is very interested in possibly going into astrophysics and she also wants to further explore space policy.
“It’s inevitable that we’re going to go to space, but I’m always pondering the ethics of space and space diversity,” says Roc, explaining that it’s important to put people of color and underrepresented people in space in order to avoid repeating and exacerbating the problems that we have on Earth.
“It’s scary how openly people are saying ‘colonize space.’ If we’re going into space with a framework of colonization, it’s going to lead to exploitation. We have to act now and find a way to stop that from happening. It’s important to not abandon Earth in the process,” she says.
The summer of 2020 was a heavy one for Roc. The killing of George Floyd weighed on her mind and made her question her purpose in life and why she was doing certain things. The creation of the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship program also grew out of a need to do more in the face of the Floyd tragedy and many others like it—giving urgency to the need to increase diversity, inclusivity and equity in the aerospace industry.
Roc knew this was the fellowship for her after reading about the program. “You know when you read something, and you become so jittery and excited that you know you have to take action? I didn’t want to do another cover letter, another application, but this was seriously awesome—I told myself ‘you have to go after this,’” says Roc.