As an elementary school student, Chelsea Atkins’ curiosity was insatiable. What is out there in the universe beyond my little patch of land on planet Earth? she wondered.
She badgered her parents persistently enough for a telescope that her mom finally used her credit card reward points to obtain one.
“It was not a very good telescope,” Atkins says. “I didn’t have the best views of everything. But I remember there was one constellation I was always able to pick out — and that was Orion’s Belt. My telescope could always pick up on that, and that was always so much fun to me. From then on, when my mom would walk outside, I could point to it and say, ‘That is Orion’s Belt. Right there. That is a place in space that I absolutely know. I can tell you it’s right there because I saw it through my telescope and I can verify it.’ ”
The seminal moment for her came as a 10th-grader at Lehigh Senior High School when she and a friend entered a science fair with a theoretical project involving black holes and came away with the American Association of University Women award.
“I’ve never been a natural in the science field,” says Atkins, who started taking classes at FGCU while still at Lehigh Senior through FGCU’s Accelerated Collegiate Experience program. “That was the first time that I really ever saw myself as possibly being able to pursue a career in science.”
And now, the junior software engineering major has taken it to the next level after being awarded a SMART Scholarship from the American Society for Engineering Education. The scholarship was established by the Department of Defense to support undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
It’s a lucrative reward and a dynamic opportunity for Atkins. She receives: a cash award of $25,000 per year; full tuition and related education expenses; health insurance and book allowances; summer internships; and post-graduation career opportunities.
Every summer until she graduates from FGCU, the SMART Scholarship will pay for her work in information technology at the Gunter Annex of the Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. After she graduates, she’ll be able to work there on the Maxwell payroll.
“I always wanted to go into the aerospace industry,” Atkins says. “I thought it’d always be a bit of an adventure because there are so many new challenges and problems every day. The SMART scholarship and the project I’ll be working on at my facility are aerospace-based. I get to do the things I’ve always wanted to do. So it’s really, really exciting. It fits nicely into my larger career goals.”
Clay Motley, director of FGCU’s Honors College, says that although the SMART Scholarship doesn’t have the history or the name recognition of the Fulbright, it’s actually a more significant accomplishment. The award was given to just 9% of the applicants, and Atkins is one of 239 who received it in 2016.
“In terms of the financial value of winning one and the competitiveness of it, this would be considered a larger scholarship than the Fulbright,” he says. “Not to denigrate Fulbright. That’s a wonderful thing as well. But this is more competitive.
“One of the great things about having students be awarded national scholarships like this is that it shows that their talents, their skills and the education they’ve gotten from FGCU and the faculty mentors are really at a level of some of the best universities in America. These are some of the best STEM students in America. These are students the government is investing in — in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars — in order for them to continue with their research, continue to develop their skills and STEM disciplines and then bring that to employment with the government.”
Atkins’ reaction when she got the news in May?
“It was, in a word, exhilarating,” she says, “because I didn’t really see myself as being able to attain something like that.”
At first, she just wanted a telescope so she could see Orion’s Belt. Now, she doesn’t need it to see that the possibilities are limitless.
Pictured above is a portion of Orion’s Belt