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January 27, 2022

How one former refugee takes her shot at being NASA’s next astronaut

When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, they might say ‘princess’ or ‘astronaut’. Many will grow up and pursue other passions, but not Laura Londono. For her, the dream of going to space has motivated her to overcome every obstacle she’s faced. 

Growing up as a young girl in Colombia, Laura was aware of the dangers that she and her family faced every day. Their neighborhood was a “red zone,” a notably dangerous area with high levels of crime and gang violence. Although her mother tried to shield her from the danger, Laura knew something was going on when she was asked by a local gang to sell “chocolates” at her school. 

“My mom told me about the dangers of the world, so I knew that they weren't just chocolates,” Laura explained. Her instincts were correct — the chocolates were a means of hiding and transporting drugs by a local gang. Laura refused. Her neighborhood was becoming more dangerous and the gangs were becoming more influential. As the violence escalated, it was clear the only way to stay safe was to flee Colombia. Laura’s family gathered their meager belongings and left for Ecuador.  

“We literally left with one big, black trash bag with our clothes. That was it,” Laura shared as she described the journey to Ecuador. “We took the bus. It's a 37 hour trip from where we lived to Cuenca, Ecuador. We got there, it was a big house with just one little mattress [in] the corner and our trash bag of clothes. We slowly started a new beginning.” 

laura poses with her grandmother

After years of unrest and instability, Laura finally found a home in Ecuador. She enrolled in a technical school to follow her passion for mechanical and electrical engineering, she joined her school’s theater program, participated in acting and made friends. “I felt like I finally did something with my life and I was finally starting to be happy. For three years I was doing that, and I was super happy. I loved Ecuador. Ecuador was my home and I still to this day believe that it's part of me.”

But just as Laura was beginning to feel stable, her life was interrupted again when her family was selected for resettlement to the United States. With just two weeks to prepare, Laura’s family packed their things and sold the rest of their belongings before beginning their new lives in Providence, Rhode Island. 

Although Providence’s quiet lifestyle was similar to what she was used to in Cuenca, Laura was unprepared for the challenge of learning English and adapting to a new culture. Being unable to keep up in her high school classes was discouraging, and without fluency in English, Laura feared having to start high school over from the beginning at 16 years old. 

laura holds up her passport

Luckily, Laura met Trish Liguori, an ESL teacher at her high school. With Trish’s support, Laura became fluent within the year and was able to stay on track to graduate on time.  

“She's really brave,” Trish reflected about Laura. “She's really, really courageous. She throws herself into things. She was always willing to be up in front of the class doing things. And as she did that, she grew in her English and everything else really quickly.”

Trish’s support marked the beginning of Laura’s new life in the United States, and it wasn’t the last time she would receive support from a mentor. Once Laura graduated high school and began classes at Rhode Island College, she discovered that she could combine her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut with her passion for engineering. 

Dr. Andrea Del Vecchio, Laura’s physics professor and research mentor at Rhode Island College, saw Laura’s passion and guided her towards her goal. She worked with Laura to help balance her full-time work and class schedules and helped her secure financial aid to finish her bachelor’s degree. 

laura in her physics research lab

Laura has had the support and encouragement of strong women throughout her entire life and has the maturity of someone far beyond her years. When asked why she wants to share her story, Laura responded confidently: “I think of other people that are going through stuff and, it might seem like there's no way out, that you're trapped and that nothing will ever get better. With a little bit of help, we can all overcome and be happy at one point. I just want to send that message to all the people that might be struggling right now, or who just got to the United States as refugees, and maybe see this video, they might be like, ‘Wow. In five years, maybe I can speak English and go to college.’”

Now, as a student researcher in Dr. Del Vecchio’s lab, Laura’s path to becoming an astronaut is clear: finish her bachelor’s degree, enroll in an aerospace engineering master’s degree program, gain experience in the field and then apply for NASA’s astronaut program. 

“That's the ultimate goal. I want to be an astronaut.” 

How can you help people like Laura? 

Laura’s journey is far from over, but she wouldn’t be here without the support of generous donors and passionate supporters. Thanks to the lifesaving work of UNHCR, Laura has found a home in Providence and her path to achieving her dream is clear. By becoming USA for UNHCR’s newest monthly donor, you can help support the dreams of other young refugees like Laura.