New scholarship supports Purdue Space Day leaders

AAE alumna Cindy Mahler established an endowment fund for students who serve in PSD to "recognize their leadership skills."
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Purdue Space Day has an executive board of Purdue students -- this is the 2019 group, along with faculty advisor Mike Sangid -- who gain valuable leadership experience through the student organization.

Purdue Space Day was born from a desire to spark interest in STEM for elementary-school-aged kids through a variety of space-themed activities.

And it has done that, recently celebrating its 25th year of operation that includes a one-day, on-campus event that welcomes kids to Purdue’s campus.

But the kids aren’t the only ones who are affected by Purdue Space Day. The college students who volunteer for the student organization, whether year-round in its educational outreach program or for a single day every fall in an event that includes an astronaut guest speaker, have been deeply impacted. Those involved in leadership positions especially have seen their PSD experience broaden skill sets, sometimes beyond what’s taught in courses, with insight into how to manage teams, how to organize large events and how to communicate in an effective way. 

With those impactful application points in mind, AAE alumna Cindy Mahler established an endowment fund, the “Purdue Space Day Leadership Scholarship.”

“In 2007, we recognized this was a professional development for the undergrads and the graduate students who were participating. Leadership skills are so incredibly important in the workplace today,” said Mahler, who helped create Space Day in 1996 and has seen it adapted, expand and grow to an independent student organization that now serves thousands of kids annually.

“With this scholarship, I wanted to give back to students who are dedicating their time to do something outside of their core course work to make a difference but also help them recognize their leadership skills and help offset the cost of school a little bit.”

The scholarship will support undergraduate students who have a minimum 2.5 GPA, have been a PSD volunteer for at least two years and have spent at least one year in a leadership role in PSD. The first scholarship will be awarded at the discretion of the PSD program administrator and head of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, once the $25,000 endowment is fully funded.

Mahler hopes that’s soon, as she knows first-hand the benefits of Space Day. As she was working to establish the event, she did exhaustive work behind the scenes to generate buzz and had to assemble a team and assign duties to execute the event. Those experiences served her well beyond Purdue. Only three years after college, she earned NASA’s Silver Snoopy award, the highest award given by astronauts to less than 1 percent of the workforce.

“The critical thinking and technical skills that came from my engineering degree — to be able to understand complex information and boil it down into what needs to be known — helped establish a career in aerospace engineering. But I don’t know if I would have been as successful in my career if I didn’t have that Purdue Space Day project management skill behind me,” Mahler said.

Mahler’s story is only one example.

Paige Hiday attended Purdue Space Day as a kid, volunteered while she was at a local high school and continued to volunteer as a Purdue student. Hiday said PSD taught her how to manage teams and interact with people and how to work on long, extended projects.      

“Purdue is really nice in that you work on a lot of team projects, but PSD upped it a level,” Hiday said, “because if you only order 50 percent of the pieces you need for these 600 people, there’s consequences to that. People would be dissatisfied — it’s not just a letter grade. It’s a very real-life outcome. You also have to respond to a lot of things. On PSD, the day is so long and there’s so many moving parts, something is bound to go a little off. How do you cope with that and deal with that in the moment?

“The first two years I worked at Kellogg’s, I supervised production lines. So that meant I had anywhere from 12-30 people under me for 12 hours. One of the things I say at work is we could have a bad day but as long as I sent you home in the same or better condition as you got here, you’ve had a good day. PSD, no matter what’s going on in the background, as long as the kids are having fun and they’re learning something, we’ve had a good day.”

AAE alumna Allie Noffke said her experience on PSD’s exec board helped solidify that she was interested in operations working with personnel. She learned she loved putting a team together and appreciated the structure of the board.

“I love a structure that allows people to thrive because they know who they report to, they know what their job is. That whole structure is put in place to help everyone be successful. That structure at Space Day very much mirrors the kind of positions I found myself pursuing in my job,” said Noffke, who works in Flight Operations at the Johnson Space Center in Extravehicular Activities. “It helped solidify my passion for operations and my passion to take operations to accomplish a mission while also developing personnel along the way. There’s just so many opportunities for professional development in an operational structure. It fed the fire that I then took into my career path.”

Contribute to the Purdue Space Day Leadership Scholarship on Purdue Day of Giving April 28