She Aims for NASA After Teaching Second Grade

August 24, 2022

By Bonnie Eissner

Rosario Cecilio joins the Astrophysics master’s program to chart a new career.

Rosario Cecilio - Astrophysics
Rosario Cecilio is one of five students to start the new Astrophysics master’s program at the Graduate Center. (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Growing up in the Bronx, Rosario Cecilio never had a clear view of the stars. Then, in 2013, after graduating from Lehman College with a degree in sociology and starting her first job as a second-grade bilingual special education teacher in the Bronx, she ventured with friends to the Custer Institute and Observatory on Long Island.

“I was just captivated by the night sky,” she says. “There was no light pollution. It was the first time that I saw Jupiter and Saturn and its moons, and from that moment, my curiosity just kind of grew.”

Nine years later, after earning a second bachelor’s degree in physics, she is one of five students about to start the Graduate Center’s new Astrophysics master’s program. The tuition-free program is designed to give students from underrepresented backgrounds the research and professional experience to qualify for Ph.D. programs in astronomy, astrophysics, and physics, or to work in a related field. 

Learn More About the M.S. Program in Astrophysics

“I had to start from zero,” Cecilio says.  

She began with a college algebra course at The City College of New York soon after wrapping up a master’s degree in literacy at Alfred University. “I did pretty bad, and I was a bit discouraged,” she says. Still, she signed up for Astronomy 101 at Lehman College, ready to walk away if her second try didn’t pan out. But the professor, Matthew O’Dowd (GC/Lehman, Physics, Astrophysics) got her hooked. “That was pretty much it,” she says. 

She continued to teach elementary school, taking just one course each semester. Last summer, after struggling to land research opportunities that fit her teaching schedule, she was chosen to join a geophysics research program in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. She surveyed the fracture-prone limestone terrain to understand underground water flows and predict potential sinkholes. She presented her research at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference last fall. ​

In January, she graduated from Lehman for a second time, and, in February, her sister emailed her about the Graduate Center’s Astrophysics program. 

“I’m just grateful for this opportunity,” she says about starting the program. “I see this as a steppingstone and an opening to a world that I’ve been eager to enter for a while.”

She plans to pursue a Ph.D. and says that, “After that, I would love to work at NASA.” 

She also likes the idea of motivating others. “That’s where my teaching skills will come in and help me open more doors for other people who are in similar boats,” she says. She’d like people to know that they can pursue physics or astrophysics even if they struggle with math or science. “You can learn to flip failure,” she says. 

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