A native of Peru, and now a U.S. citizen, Valerie Castrillon has come a long way in more ways than one. The college preparatory school she attended in Lima had focused on what to expect from higher education, but provided little in the way of reassuring students to believe in themselves.
While she knew her family expected her to earn a college degree, Valerie admitted attending community college was not her original plan. But, her family had moved to Birmingham, Alabama, just before fall classes were due to start in 2009. Enrolling late at Jefferson State Community College (JSCC), she found most of the classes were full except for the night classes.
During her first semester at JSCC, she noticed photos in the hallway of some “very cool kids” doing all kinds of activities, from social nights to fundraisers and community service. So, she visited with Phi Theta Kappa advisor Dr. Liesl Harris, who invited her to attend a chapter meeting.
“I accepted that invitation, and soon after I became a member,” Valerie said. “It turned out that this honor society was much more than the photos could tell.”
Valerie had only been living in the U.S. for three years and had started her classes below college level. She conceded that her English was not the best; she wore braces and spoke with a thick accent.
“I never thought I would be capable of making all A’s, much less become a member of Phi Theta Kappa and serve as chapter president,” she said. “But Liesl saw something in me — she gave me the opportunity to join the Beta Lambda Delta Chapter and serve as chapter president.”
As Valerie pursued a degree in business, she fell in love with business calculus, took more math classes and discovered that she enjoyed the challenge of higher-level math. Coincidentally, when she attended Phi Theta Kappa’s annual convention in Seattle that year, she heard from general session speakers Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, and Fred Haise, Apollo 13 astronaut.
A distinguished alumnus of Phi Theta Kappa, Fred took his Phi Theta Kappa membership pin with him on the nearly disastrous Apollo 13 mission. The pin, along with a NASA patch from his uniform, are now proudly displayed at Phi Theta Kappa’s Center for Excellence in Jackson, Mississippi.
Valerie saw Fred once more when she attended that year’s Honors Institute in Boston.
“When I came home, I told my parents that I wanted to become an aerospace engineer,” she said.
After completing her associate degree in business Valerie transferred to Auburn University, where she graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in aerospace engineering.
“It was not my plan to enroll at a community college — I didn’t know what would be ahead of me on this journey, but I truly believe this made me who I am today,” Valerie said. “I advise young people to do the same — attend a community college, and of course, join PTK.
“It influenced my career decisions and who I am today beyond measure.”
Valerie described her Phi Theta Kappa experience as so powerful, so meaningful that it changed her life completely, and said she continues to stay in touch with Liesl and her husband, John, to this day. In fact, when she landed her dream job at Airbus, Liesl was among the first to get a text.
Airbus is an international pioneer in the aerospace industry, designing, manufacturing and delivering aerospace products, services and solutions on a global scale. Valerie will serve as a flightline manufacturing engineer for the final assembly line (FAL) at the new Airbus facility in Mobile, Alabama.
Liesl is understandably proud of her former student.
“This is just one example of what we hear every day about how Phi Theta Kappa changes lives,” she said “The skills Valerie learned and the confidence she gained are serving her well!”
Valerie still calls Phi Theta Kappa one of her biggest accomplishments — even bigger than having a degree in aerospace engineering and working for her dream company.
“When I became a member, I started to see that I was capable and nothing is impossible, and I learned to believe more in myself,” she said. “I learned that I had a joy for public speaking, and that I wanted to become the best version of myself, and be a leader.
“I met people who wanted the same, and all of this was just the beginning of who I am today.”
And recently, Liesl received yet another text from Valerie:
I have to tell you lately I’ve been thinking a lot about PTK and my time there. Recently I got asked to be a leader and go to represent Airbus FAL USA and select my own team of six people from FALs in China, France and Germany! And all I can think is, ah, I’ve done this before. I’ve been a team leader before.
Valerie is currently in Hamburg, Germany, attending a summer camp organized by Olaf Lawrenze, Vice President of all Airbus A320 FALs across the globe. Daryl Taylor, General Manager of FAL Mobile, invited Valerie to be one of the “Young Tigers” to represent the U.S. and serve as one of the five team leaders selected from all FALs. She is the first team leader from the U.S. and speaks four languages.
“Like Liesl, I am not sure what Daryl has seen in me, but I love my job and I am very happy and humbled by this opportunity,” she said. “It motivates me more than I can explain. I am so thankful.”
This week Valerie and her colleagues had a meeting with Olaf to discuss problem solving and finding solutions.
“When he referred to the Apollo 13 mission and asked if we were familiar, I had to bite my tongue to not brag about how familiar I am,” she said. “I have a picture of Fred Haise in my office, along with a sign that says ‘Houston, we do not have a problem.’ “