At 220 miles above the Earth, the International Space Station (ISS) relies on a complex web of systems to keep astronauts safe and healthy in the void of space.
Repairing or replacing equipment in space proves difficult, which is why teams of engineers – including SUNY Broome alumnus Phuc Vo – make sure to troubleshoot systems while they’re still on the ground.
“We have to anticipate any potential failure modes, design its redundancies and control the potential hazards on the ground, before it’s sent up to the ISS,” explained Phuc, a 2016 Engineering Science grad who is now a reliability engineer for Collins Aerospace in Connecticut.
Coming to SUNY Broome
While Phuc Vo didn’t face the kind of journey astronauts do, he has followed his own globe-trotting course.
Originally from Vietnam, he joined his parents and older sister in Binghamton in 2014. Going to college was a priority, but he needed to hone his English language skills and familiarity with American culture first.
“The U.S. and English were a whole new world for me,” he explained. “I didn’t know much about the education system, as well as the study style here.”
He did have family ties to the college, however; both of his brothers-in-law had attended what was then called Broome Community College. They had good things to say and encouraged Phuc to earn his associate degree at the college before transferring on.
Initially, his tenuous grasp of English made college an isolating experience. Phuc – known during his SUNY Broome days for his beautiful social media shots of campus – often avoided conversations with his fellow students early on, fearing that he wouldn’t be able to make himself understood.
What helped: four English as a Second Language classes, small class sizes and understanding professors, who could read the questions in his eyes and help him understand.
“My professors, they know even when I don’t say it,” Phuc remembered. “They look at my face, and they understand my thinking.”
He has a special appreciation for Engineering Science Professor Thomas Grace. After discovering that he needed an electrical circuit class to meet the requirements of one of his prospective transfer schools, Phuc enrolled – three weeks after the class began. The week after he started, he faced a quiz and a test – giving him essentially five days to master topics his fellow students had been studying for the past few weeks.
During those five days, he spent most of his time studying in the Applied Technologies Building lobby, and meeting with Professor Grace during any available office hour.
“He always answered my questions with a smile, and … he explained it until I was clear on what I was asking,” said Phuc, who ended up earning a perfect score on the quiz and test. “I always feel that he is one of the best professors I’ve met.”
To the Ivy League and beyond
The future engineer was accepted by multiple transfer schools, including Virginia Tech, Binghamton University, Carnegie Mellon University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, to name a few. Ultimately, he chose Cornell University, and earned his bachelor’s in electrical and computer engineering in 2018.
His time at SUNY Broome gave him the skills he needed to succeed – not only when it comes to the English language, but in critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and the ability to work independently, he said.
“Sometimes I thought (that) if I didn’t go to SUNY Broome and went directly to Cornell, I would fail there,” he said. “The two years (I spent) at SUNY Broome is very important in my life. Without those two years, I couldn’t make it this far.”
During his second semester at Cornell, he decided to accept an information technology internship at UTC Aerospace Systems in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. The following year, he returned to Connecticut as a software engineering intern at the aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, providing assistance on an aircraft engine project.
Aerospace interested him and he decided to join the field once he graduated, taking a job as a reliability engineer at Collins, also in Windsor Locks. (UTC acquired Rockwell Collins, and they merged to form Collins Aerospace in 2018.)
“When I was a kid, there was a question always in my mind: Where else can we go if, one day, Earth is no longer a home for humans? People are still working on the answer to that question and I want to be part of that team,” he said.
Long-term, Phuc Vo plans to pursue his master’s degree in systems engineering at Cornell or a master’s in cyber-security at the University of California-Berkeley. His ultimate goal is to work at NASA headquarters or for the Navy’s submarine program.
He encouraged fellow STEM-savvy Hornets to consider a future in engineering science. The program is academically challenging, but always interesting and leads to great career options. Solving problems and being at the forefront of new technology are also very fulfilling, he said.
“I shared with you my story, but I know one day, it will be your turn to share with the world your story,” Phuc Vo said to his fellow Hornets. “And I will be proud to say that our stories have one thing in common: SUNY Broome Community College.”