Jerry Rengel is a first generation Ecuadorian American who was recently named among Huffington Post’s “40 under 40: Latinos in Foreign Policy”. He graduated in 2014 from the SGPIA at The New School, and now works as a media relations specialist for NASA.
Jerry agreed to an interview detailing his unconventional career path and success, conducted by email over a few weeks. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and why you joined The New School?
I’m a first-generation Ecuadorian American born in Manhattan, New York. My parents are from Loja, Ecuador and we come from several generations of coffee farmers.
In 2012, Occupy Wall Street was in full force and I joined the protests both at home in New York and in Chicago. A few weeks before graduating with a BA in Government and Comparative Politics from City University of New York, I remember sitting in my mentor’s office asking her what she thought I should do with my life. There weren’t many jobs in New York, but I had come away from the Occupy protests knowing that I wanted to join government, while also keeping in touch with the grassroots activism I saw out on the streets of Chicago and in Zuccotti Park. My mentor suggested The New School was where I should be.
What was a defining experience during your time in the SGPIA program?
I remember my first class vividly. I thought to myself “I must be in the wrong class: there is no way I can be counted among a room full of such talented and gifted students!” The course was (Assistant Professor) Antina von Schnitzler and (SGPIA Chair) Stephen Collier‘s “Technopolitics,” which covered the relationship between politics and technical expertise and introduced me to the works of Michel Foucault and Max Weber. I would later remember this course when I started working in international development at USAID.
Have your found that what you learned in the SGPIA classrooms has been useful to your post-graduate career?
International Affairs is a sexy career field. People love the idea of working in development or diplomacy because its allows them to travel, meet new people, and become citizens of the world. The New School SGPIA program has been with me every day of my post-graduate life. It taught me to look at the world around me very critically, while holding onto my values and beliefs and advocating for the world I want to live in. I would say that (Assistant Professor) Mark Johnson‘s “PIA II: Project Implementation” course was real-world preparation because it taught me the importance of management, evaluation, and logistics planning. You really need those in any career.
What has your career trajectory been since you graduated from the program?
The New School is not traditional, and neither is my career trajectory. Toward the end of my time in the SGPIA, I opted to take an internship at USAID for independent study credits. The first few months in Washington, D.C. were intense, even for a guy who was born and raised in New York City. I interned in USAID’s press shop, supporting foreign service officers and other State Department staff at special events. It was a very sobering experience because it helped me understand how the U.S. uses development, diplomacy, and defense to protect its interest in the midst of global politics and conflicts.
Soon enough, I caught the attention of a communications director and some science advisors at USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab (USGDL), who saw promise in my work and offered me a job. Working at the USGDL also inspired a newfound passion for understanding how science, technology, innovation, and international partnerships can be used for global good. That passion would later turn into love and respect for the scientific community as a catalyst for global change. It was not a large leap to adjust my thinking from global to interplanetary and NASA seemed like the next logical step. I’m still working on Earth-related issues, just on a bigger scale, I suppose.
You work for NASA now, which I’ve read is a dream come true for you. Can you tell me a little about why you’ve always wanted to work there and how you managed to achieve it?
This is a true story that goes back, way back, to when I was just a kid living in Queens. One night, our parents took us shopping and we came across a telescope kit. I really wanted it, but my parents told me it was too expensive – we were a family of 5 living in a one bedroom apartment, so as kids, we were kind of used to hearing “no, it’s too expensive.” One day I come home and to find the telescope kit sitting on the kitchen table. I was so happy, I dropped everything and I went outside to assemble it in preparation to use it that night. It wasn’t until I put the thing together that I noticed that the eyepiece was broken. My older brother told me that it was a waste of time to even try making it work because we lived in Queens and there was too much light pollution anyway. He had a point.
A couple of years later, our NYC high school took us out on a trip to the Hayden Planetarium, and we got to see a space show. It was the only time I could really get a close look at the stars from NYC. So, for me, I guess working at NASA is like coming full circle – now I can see the sky through images taken by some of the most powerful telescopes on Earth.
What is the nature of your work?
News, news, and more news! I am a media relations specialist at NASA HQ, as well as political appointee for the Obama Administration. Part of my job is tracking NASA in the news, and ensuring that the White House Office of Science and Technology is kept abreast of NASA activities and press releases.
The job requires that I have a strong relationship with the academics, scientists and engineers who make space exploration possible, as well as maintaining a familiarity with the science and technology publications and reporters who cover NASA’s work. Occasionally, I produce and host special events that feature astronauts and engineers. It is exciting to be part of the NASA organisation, where I have been able to coordinate rocket launch visits for White House staff and guests, as well as seeing the agency working from a thousand foot policy level.
What do you think is the relationship between NASA (and space exploration in general) and International Affairs?
NASA is on a Journey to Mars, and that is a mission that will require cooperation across private industry, governments and academia. At heart, I believe our country to be a peace loving nation that understands the value of democracy as a game changer for our species. That is why it is very important that the United States continues to lead the effort to get to Mars; that means working with our international partners who are also exploring the Red Planet.
Few people know about the work that the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA), or the Russian space agency (Roscosmos), are doing or how important they are for our own missions. We have astronauts currently orbiting the Earth at 17,500 mph in an International Space Station that was constructed by 16 different countries. In essence, mobilizing the scientific communities across the world is something that NASA has always been great at and, personally, I think that governments will have to eventually learn to work together if our species wants to continue the course of interplanetary travel.
Huffington Post just named you one of the top 40 under 40 Latinos in Foreign Policy. Did you know about this before the article came out?
I got a phone call from a good friend who congratulated me on the award. I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I said, “Thank you,” hung up and looked it up. I can now say that I’m on a list with Selena Gomez.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about life post Graduate School?
Business plays a big role in all fields – it’s not just all policy and management.They don’t call it the development industry, or the space industry, for nothing. Be wary of that. Business dictates a lot around you. If you are too idealistic, and avoid the reality that people are making decisions based on financial gain, you won’t be an effective leader. Conversely, if you only make profit-based decisions, you may compromise your principles. This is a tricky balance, but you’ll get it. There is a great quote by James Baldwin, a fellow New School alumnus, that sums it up: “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.”
Any advice for people entering the job market after Graduate school?
Take the internship now, reap the rewards later.
You seem to be doing well at the moment. What’s next?
I’m really interested in Artificial Intelligence (AI). I think AI may have a bigger impact on our lives than traveling to Mars. It can help us “break the code” to problems humans can’t yet find answers to: deep learning programs that can conduct medical research, find answers to physics problems we don’t know exist, or transport us from point A to point B efficiently are going to revolutionize the world. I hope to be part of that wave of discovery and help tell its story.
I’m very mission driven and attracted to those big picture goals like reaching Mars or solving today’s impossible questions through AI. Maybe some of you reading this can relate. Maybe you’re an activist, a poet, or even a politician fighting for something impossible, or maybe you’re just a first generation immigrant kid from Queens trying to figure out his place like I was, and in many respects, still am. Don’t choose to live a simple, boring life – you don’t have to. As they say at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, “Dare mighty things.”