Tinise Lee speaking at NASA NCAS
Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Tinise Lee is a non-traditional student but not in the traditional way. She came to Ohlone after receiving her B.A. from UC Santa Cruz in Feminist Studies where she focused on law, politics, and social change. Yet, despite completing a four-year degree Lee was inspired to search for more ways to contribute to solution-making.

“I knew I wanted to make a positive change in the world but I just didn’t know how,” says Lee.

After working in different industries, Lee relocated to Fremont where she decided to enroll in Ohlone’s Intro to Engineering course taught by Professor Rose-Margaret Ekeng-Itua.

“Dr. Itua taught that engineering shouldn’t just be about design but also about the social implications of how that design serves humanity,” says Lee. “That’s when I recognized the need to bridge my passion for social change and engineering.”

With Dr. Itua as a mentor and inspiration, Lee enrolled in two semesters at Ohlone but was going through personal difficulties that overcame her midway through her studies that caused her to drop out.

“I was going through cycles of depression and had even considered suicide. When the gravity of such darkness kept pulling me in, dancing with death became so familiar and getting out of that black hole felt impossible,” explained Lee. “It has taken years of healing, but I found my light and I’m here because of the people who refused to give up on me and because of all the people—kin and strangers, living and ancestral—who fought for my right to life. I knew I had to pay it forward.”

After losing touch over the years, Lee reconnected with Professor Itua in 2018 and was, again, inspired and decided to revisit her curiosity in engineering. She spent several months researching the field and spoke with and met professionals in the industry to gain a better understanding of what the day-to-day work entailed and what it really took to be an engineer.

That same year, she took a trip down to Florida and visited NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

“It was life-changing,” says Lee. “Seeing all the different kinds of space suits, the Saturn 5 rocket. It was incredible—the rovers and the rocks brought back from the moon,” says Lee. “It blew my mind that they were just right in front of me. That was when I truly saw the impact of science and of engineering in particular.”

Lee enrolled back at Ohlone that year and followed the mechanical engineering track. Little did she know that Ohlone would lead her right back to what re-sparked her journey—NASA.

Through the Ohlone College Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Division (STEM), Ohlone’s partnership with NASA provides students an opportunity to be a part of the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program. It’s put on by the NASA office of STEM engagement and requires admission through an application followed by a five-week online course that includes a final project. Lee applied to the program after hearing about it from Student Support Specialist Marina Gonzalez and through the support of Associate Chemistry Professor Luba Voloshko, was accepted, performed well on the final project, and was invited by NASA to their onsite experience at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

During the NCAS program, Lee spent a week working on a simulated rover project using the LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 kit. “We built it and had to program it within three days with a team of ten people from across the country,” says Lee.

But Lee wasn’t the only Ohlone College student at NCAS. She met former Ohlone student turned Stanford transfer, Shadi Elaridi, at the same on-site program. Both Ohlone students received the most valuable player (MVP) awards for their team and both were invited back by NASA to serve as student assistants for the next cohort of NCAS attendees at the Johnson Space Center.

Lee says the NASA experience has really changed her life and that she is so thankful for Ohlone College Engineering Professor Rose Margaret Ekeng-Itua for convincing her that she had a place in the world of engineering.

“Bridging engineering with social change is a demanding challenge and has often felt impossible,” says Lee. “And being a queer gender-bender of color and coming from previous disciplines that are very different from STEM disciplines, I have wanted to give up more times than I could count.”

Now, Lee plans to enhance her studies and the field of engineering by bringing disciplines such as ethnic and feminist studies that challenge knowledge production and encourage social justice transformation into her work. She is deeply inspired by the words of bell hooks, “Feminism isn’t simply a struggle to end male chauvinism or a movement to ensure that ‘women’ have equal rights with ‘men.’ It’s a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels – sex, race, class to name a few – and a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”

“This statement is a driving force behind why I’m pursuing engineering. Becoming an engineer is a purpose much larger than myself. There are so many issues we are facing as a society, and we have to pull through as a global community if we’re going to survive as a people. I’m determined to be part of the collective solution.”

Tinise Lee is currently the President of Ohlone’s Society of Women Engineers Collegiate Interest Group (SWE CIG). Since beginning her studies at Ohlone for engineering, she has interned with Evolve Manufacturing through the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded Smart Manufacturing in the Silicon Valley Internship Program, where she supported the manufacturing of COVID-19 test kits and ventilators. There, she co-created several iterations of a prototype for a COVID-19 test tube counting system that were used in the production lines and was hired back as a Quality/Manufacturing Engineering Apprentice.