If you've ever doubted the power of an education, just talk to South Dakota School of Mines & Technology graduating senior Ryan Brown, who went from a high school dropout to landing an elite job with NASA.
His hard work, dedication and drive to succeed brought him to a place in life he never dreamed possible.
"I absolutely didn't think I'd ever be here," the Army veteran said earlier this week. Brown will walk across the stage with more than 100 other graduates today at the Mines fall commencement ceremony.
After five years in college and working through the elite NASA Pathways Internship program, Brown recently accepted a full-time position in Mission Control at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The 32-year-old computer engineering major was born in Hot Springs, but moved around Wyoming, Utah and South Dakota during his childhood as his mother worked to provide for her family.
And though his humble beginnings likely helped strengthen his character and drive, he does not advocate his early educational choices.
At 18, with only a semester left in high school, he decided it made more sense to work and earn a paycheck than to sit in a classroom.
"At that time I thought it wasn't a big deal," Brown said. "I thought I'd go work a full-time job because, at that point, I wasn't getting much out of school. I had no intentions of going to college, so to me it didn't matter whether I had a GED or high school diploma."
But it wasn't long until he realized that it did matter.
Inspired by the 9/11 attacks and other life events, Brown joined the Army shortly after leaving school.
"My family didn't have any money and I didn't have any money so I wanted to get out of the Midwest, go see the world, and start doing something with my life," Brown said.
He spent seven years on active duty, most of which was spent in a support position for the Army's Special Forces Command Airborne unit, and one year in the National Guard stationed in Wyoming. His experiences during that time helped guide him to his current path, he said.
Between his deployments to combat zones, Brown enjoyed traveling with friends around Europe while stationed in Germany where he met his wife of six years, Ruta. He also began to think about higher education and take college courses.
"I took a couple college classes to kind of remove the GED from my record so I could apply for colleges and have some college classes on my transcript," Brown said.
When he left the Army in 2009, he worked some as an electrician and plumber. But difficulty finding a good job and enduring unemployment for a short time proved to him that this was not the way he wanted live.
Using his G.I. Bill benefit, he decided to pursue a degree from Mines.
"As soon as I started school here, within a couple of weeks there was a career fair so I took my resume with my military experience on it," he said. "And I quickly realized that veterans are much better received in the professional world."
The Veterans Resource Center at Mines played a big role in Brown's success through programs like Trio Veterans Upward Bound which provides refresher courses in math, writing and more for veterans who have likely been out of school for several years. It was also a place where he could go to study and talk with other student veterans who were going through many of the same experiences.
"It's things like that that make this school really stand out," Brown said.
Another factor in his success was the emphasis the school places on encouraging students to gain experience in their field through internships and other programs.
Brown built a relationship with the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium through his first internship, and the organization gave him a $10,000 scholarship when he landed his first 15-week tour interning at NASA JSC in 2012.
He worked in a variety of environments during in his internships. At one point, he wrote computer code for astronaut space simulation training.
He said he knew he wanted to work in mission control after attending a lecture by Gene Kranz, the now-retired NASA Flight Director and manager who served during the Gemini and Apollo programs. The fast-paced environment reminded him of his time in the military.
"I really wanted to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the International Space Center," he said. "The faster paced operational environment was very different from the research and development environment of engineering."
Brown will now spend the next year and a half training in Houston to become an expert on CRONOS, the computer console he will work on.
Brown explained that this desk must be manned 24 hours a day, and is responsible for all of the computer and communications systems on board of the International Space Station.
"l'll be learning every minor detail about the subsystems I'll be responsible for," Brown said.
Brown credits much of his success to the support of his wife and his 10-year-old daughter. He said he may have taken an unconventional path, but he wouldn't change a thing.
"My family was a large motivator to stay focused in school," Brown said. "There is no way I could have put forth this much focus and effort right out of high school. It solidifies the fact that you're focused on a career change when you have a family to provide for, especially when it's as rigorous as this process and the program at this school."