Linh Lam understands firsthand how it feels to be in a minority and need to work to find a place to belong. Her life has been an ongoing story of facing – and overcoming – obstacles to find a place with NASA at Stennis Space Center.
Lam considers Chauvin, Louisiana, her hometown. However, she only reached the Bayou State after her family fled as refugees from their Vietnam homeland in 1989. The move brought the predictable challenges any immigrant to a new country and culture faces.
Lam overcame those, eventually arriving on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where she earned accounting degrees from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi and a Master of Business Administration degree from William Carey University. Twenty years after arriving in the country, Lam became a U.S. citizen.
“I realized this accomplishment would open doors that could change the trajectory of my life,” said Lam, who works as a reimbursable accountant in the NASA Office of the Chief Financial Officer at Stennis and also serves as the site’s Special Emphasis Programs manager for women. “Looking back, becoming an American citizen greatly increased my qualifications and opportunities to be hired by the federal government.”
The opportunity was not immediate, even though she lived in the shadow of Stennis. Lam had not grown up exposed to NASA. “Working for NASA wasn’t even a thought,” she said. “I was just hoping I could have a job to support myself and, hopefully, also help my family.”
In 2012, though, Lam had a chance to work as a student trainee at the NASA Shared Services Center (NSSC) located at Stennis. She soon advanced to serve as an internal controls and travel accountant. In 2017, she moved to the Stennis team. “It was a challenging decision,” she said. “I began my career as an intern at the NSSC and that’s all I knew.”
Two serendipitous factors came into play. Former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visited Stennis as his agency tenure was ending. During the visit, Bolden urged employees to take pride in their work at Stennis. “Anytime anybody gives an opportunity to talk about what you do, take it, …” he said, “Tell them you’re responsible for getting people into space, because that’s what you do everyday.”
Lam was inspired by the message and also in watching the recently released movie Hidden Figures, which recounts the previously untold story of African American women who provided critical input and support to NASA during the early days of space exploration.
“I took those two things as the universe telling me to jump at this opportunity to expose myself to a new environment so I could continue to grow in my career,” she said. “And the universe was right.”
Lam’s current work with reimbursable customers directly supports NASA’s space exploration efforts, including the Artemis program effort to send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024.
A year ago, Lam also was chosen to serve in her Special Emphasis Program role. Special Emphasis Programs were established more than 40 years ago to focus on groups that have been historically absent or underrepresented in specific occupational categories or grade levels in the federal workplace. Several managers work on site to highlight affected groups.
Lam clearly understands the challenges that various groups, including women, can face and the importance of embracing diversity. She praises the Stennis culture. “The best thing about working at Stennis is truly the people,” she said. “And what is there to say about diversity at Stennis? They hired me – a female who was born in Vietnam and grew up in Chauvin, Louisiana, with a degree that is not in engineering.”
As a special emphasis manager, Lam is focused on ensuring that culture flourishes. “My goal is to help counter past and present disparities that can still impact equal opportunities at Stennis in the future.”
She also is focused on what lies ahead as Stennis tests the rocket engines and stages that will power the next great era of space exploration, including the Artemis lunar missions and future missions to Mars. “I’m so excited about being part of the Artemis generation,” said Lam, the immigrant citizen-turned diversity champion who has blazed her own trail since arriving in the country as a child. “We are making history.”
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