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Stories of empowerment: Cynthia Vernón no longer a ‘hidden figure’ after NASA career unveiled

Mar 07, 2019 | RBC Wealth Management


Dr. Cynthia Vernón's experience as an African American woman working at NASA is brought to life during an interview with Soledad OBrien.

Cynthia Vernón talking in an interview

Dr. Cynthia Vernón joined NASA as a mathematician when she graduated from college in 1963. Her experience as an African American woman working as a mathematician at NASA in the early 1960s, quietly making significant contributions, went undiscovered until just recently.

Similar to hardships told in the blockbuster movie Hidden Figures, Vernón’s story is brought to life during an interview led by award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, four trailblazing women, including Vernón, share their stories of empowerment.

Here is an excerpt from Vernón’s conversation with O’Brien, which has been edited and condensed.

What was the hardest thing [about working at NASA]?

The hardest thing was I didn’t know Fortran programming and that was very essential to communicating with the engineers and making sure their runs were correct. And there was [no] math training. You had to be self-taught.

So, how did you learn it? Just taught yourself?

I learned it by reading the manuals and asking questions, but I was the only black when I first got hired. Later on, there was a black male who got hired also but for a time there, I was the only black female.

There was a group I found there, but they were all white and a few women. There weren’t a lot of women.

Was it lonely?

I didn’t find it lonely because I liked the challenge of learning something new and I was so busy trying to learn, trying to be good at it and spending time focusing on that, that I didn’t have time to worry about being lonely. The other engineers communicated with me and everyone I worked with was supportive.

When [your daughter] heard that actually you were a hidden figure, somebody whose early career was doing something so incredibly remarkable but that history kind of missed, what was her reaction?

Well, she egged me on, ‘Well, Mom, tell the kids more.’ And then she came down ... to my area and brought me a glass of wine and sat down and we had this conversation in which she could get the real story and so, she was very surprised.

And then she immediately wrote a little passage and put it on the internet. And all of a sudden, my cell phone starts bing, bing, bing, bing. I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ and she says, ‘Mom, I put your story online.’

Were you surprised?

I was surprised anybody would be interested in it.

Really? You’d just seen a whole entire movie about it.

It was life for me. The difficulties and the challenge; but I was still surprised that in this day and age people are interested in this little story.

Why do you think that is? Why do you think people are interested in this day and age?

Well, I think they’ve read some things in history about segregation, about the Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement, etc. But to have someone who actually lived through it, is still here today, to tell the story and to just be so active and alert, telling the story as if they’re living it now.

And it wasn’t long ago for those of us who lived it but for many of the young people now, it was only a story in a book. And here is a real, live person — those were some of the comments I got.

Why do you think you’ve been successful?

I think the principles my family instilled in me and my sister, the supportive community I was raised in, the background of New Orleans, the Catholic schools where your teachers didn’t put you down but they encouraged you; that there was a dream that you could reach. All of this support helped me, and when I look at some of my other friends who were very successful too, we all went through similar things and it helped them. I see support being very critical to your achievements. And not just support of your immediate family but I say the community — the village as it is said.

Do you see yourself today as a role model for young women?

Well, I always try to be an example and a role model; I’ve always tried to share what I can do, what I’ve learned, whether it was through classroom teaching or being involved in other community projects where I helped with sciences and STEM programs or academically competitive projects with young people. So, I’ve tried to at least exhibit that I want to be that role model.

I think it’s important young people have role models in front of them and particularly in the underserved communities. That’s important to be their supporters, to give them opportunities as youngsters. If they don’t get the opportunities as youngsters, I don’t know how they’ll ever see themselves in these roles.

Are you glad that your hidden figure story is no longer hidden?

Yes, I am. I think I can use it to the advantage, as I said of reaching out and helping others with it.

And if I had not seen that through my daughter reaching out to make sure this story got exposed, it would just be buried and, unfortunately, not enough stories like these are told. I think there are a lot more around that could be told.

Watch Cynthia Vernón’s interview in the video below.


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