From Community College to the Cosmos: A Journey of Passion and Perseverance | Meet CSAA Winner Theodore Courtois

Austin Community College District (ACC) honors our students’ incredible achievements at the upcoming Spring 2024 Commencement. More than 3,000 are invited to the ceremony at 4 p.m. Friday, May 17, at H-E-B Center at Cedar Park. 

One of those students is ACC’s Chancellor Student Achievement Award winner, Theodore Courtois.

Hear more about his journey below.

Written by: Theodore Courtois

As a first-generation and nontraditional student, I am proud to graduate this semester with my Associate of Science degree in General Studies with Honors. I have been supported in reaching this personally significant milestone by the meaningful connections, strong guidance, and invaluable resources I have found here at Austin Community College. I have been an Aerospace Engineering major in the making since I first discovered the incredible engineering opportunities that ACC offers, and I would not be heading off to Arizona State University to pursue that passion without the faculty and advisors’ drive to cultivate student potential. The phrase “ad astra per aspera” or “through hardship to the stars” is a common adage in pursuing space exploration. I am so thankful that I have been surrounded by loving and encouraging Riverbats have empowered me to grow beyond my own hardship.

A large part of that personal growth has originated in my involvement with Student Life organizations and the Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) Honor Society. The opportunities afforded me through extracurricular activities opened doors that made larger achievements possible. I will always remember the pride and excitement I felt when I was invited to join PTK. That recognition of my dedication to my coursework gave me the confidence I needed to apply to the Honors Program. Here, I learned about the Honors Student Organization where I took on a leadership role as Treasurer. While serving in that role, I found my enthusiasm for student leadership and eventually took up the mantles of President of the HSO and North Region Vice President of the Alpha Gamma Pi chapter of PTK. These experiences developed me as a leader and allowed me to serve the ACC and greater Austin communities. I wanted more to combine my passion for leadership and space.

After exhaustive research on founding a student organization, I became the Founding President of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) at Austin Community College. This new organization competed in a space research competition and developed a program for students to earn their high-power rocketry certification. Now, a year and a half later, the SEDS ACC Rocketry Team is competing in the Spaceport America Cup, the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering conference and competition, as one of only three community colleges to qualify along with over 150 universities from around the world including Yale, Stanford, and MIT. I also participated in NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) and the NASA Lucy Student Pipeline Accelerator and Competency Enabler (L’SPACE).

Coming from my background, it was difficult to believe that these accomplishments were within my reach, but I kept going because of the work ethic and determination ingrained in me by my mom and modeled for me by my sister. They continually inspire me and teach me time and again to never give up. As a direct result of their influence, I will be the first person in our family to receive any degree in higher education. 

With each step I take across that stage, I carry so many people with me. I take a step for my mother, who had to leave nursing school and work multiple jobs to support me and my sister; a step for my late father, who will never have the opportunity to see the man that I have become; a step for my brother and a step for my aunt — neither of whom were given nearly enough time in this world. These steps I leave behind me as a testament to the indomitable human spirit. 

Similar to the influence of my family, I would not be where I am today without the meaningful mentorship, personal support, and academic guidance that I received from both HSO Advisor Jana McCarthy and Chair of the Honors College, Dr. Anne-Marie Thomas.

During my final year at Austin Community College, I unexpectedly found myself unhoused and facing great personal obstacles. When I was at my most vulnerable and uncertain, Jana helped me to find peace and stability in my accomplishments and the path that I had built for my future. She helped me remember that I, too, deserved the grace that I gave others. Struggling to maintain my academic path, Dr. Thomas provided endless encouragement through kind words of support and persistent optimism about my future. My persistence in achievement can be attributed to the work of both of these phenomenal women in identifying, developing, and broadcasting opportunities tailored to the needs of students in the ACC Honors Program. From being able to speak at the Community College Humanities Association 2023 National Conference to an enriching journey focused on restorative practices in the University of Texas Youth and Community Studies Fellowship, the Honors Program at Austin Community College provides limitless opportunities for growth and development.

Reflecting on my ACC experience, I know that this was the right place for me all along because of the intellectual and social exploration students have access to in this environment. I started my journey as an Education major but found my way to my true passions because this is a place where we can try anything. If inspiration takes us down a different path, we are all encouraged to try again, and inspiration can be found here in abundance. My inspiration came from the teachings of Dr. Antonia Chimonidou and Professor Purna Murthy and the countless questions they each answered to satiate my curiosity during my conceptual physics courses.

To anyone thinking of applying for college, give yourself the opportunity to follow your dreams and then pursue them relentlessly. You are worth investing in your future, and you belong here. There has not been a single moment since clicking on that “Apply Now” button that I have not been thankful for that choice and excited about the endless possibilities that await. 

Though I am moving on to the next phase of my journey to pursue my Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace (Astronautics) Engineering at Arizona State University, I do not leave Austin Community College behind. I will always be a Riverbat and carry my experiences at ACC in every future endeavor. For me, community college has not just been a stepping stone to a four-year university; Austin Community College has been the launch pad for my exploration beyond the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to accelerate to escape velocity.

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