‘Putting in the Work’ Pays Off With NASA Internship

Wednesday, May 5, 2021
NASA Student

Jay Connolly is an overcomer and knows what it’s like to have a tough start. He is everything you love in a human being. He’s humble, honest, caring and giving. He is also a surfer, getting ready for a NASA internship and leaving for an ivy league education in the fall. 

It all started at Phoenix College’s (PC) math department. When Jay was learning how to be a better math student, he stumbled on some Open Educational Resource videos posted by PC’s James Sousa. The techniques and methods used in the videos left Connolly with hope and inspiration. He could absolutely do this is he just applied himself. 

So, he did – starting in the College’s lowest level math – one designed to bring students up to speed so they can take full credit courses. It worked. Jay became a star student, blazing through with straight As – but with a lot of hard work. 

“I was getting good grades using Sousa’s videos for trigonometry. So, when it came time, I chose Phoenix College for Calculus I, II and III because of his teaching,” he said. Then he discovered the entire math department was just what he needed and wanted: supportive, patient and encouraging. 

“Every teacher at PC is really caring. I wouldn’t be able to achieve getting this internship or anything else I’ve done without them,” Connolly said. 

It wasn’t long ago when Jay found out he had a tumor and needed surgery. He was weak and ill; it was going to be a rough summer and he knew he needed to get on top of his work. He reached out to his professors at PC and told them what was happening. They gave him his homework in advance so he could start the semester early and not miss anything after surgery. 

One PC math faculty member, Dr. Frank Marfai holds a special place in Jay’s heart. He credits Marfai with successfully landing the NASA internship. “Dr. Marfai spends so much time and attention with us. I like him as a teacher, but more, I also consider him a mentor.”

Dr. Marfai is a huge fan of Jay’s too. Marfai met Jay while teaching online then through online open office hours. “Everything Jay does, he works hard at. He worries if he’s doing his best. He is a hard worker, respects his classmates and is humble. He wants to always do the right thing.”

It’s no wonder NASA picked Jay for one of only six national internships in cybersecurity. For Jay, this is his dream come true. For the internship, Jay will be embedded in a real project, working with the nation's top scientists, engineers and business professionals. NASA allows interns to participate in either research or other experiential learning under the guidance of a mentor.

Jay will attend the University of Pennsylvania (Upenn) for computer science with an emphasis on security. The NASA internship will be remote due to COVID-19 concerns, which is good for Jay as he has a weak immune system. 

The sophomore, who is fluent in binary, loves Morse code and thrives in hacker challenges, developed an interest in cybersecurity early on. He likes that the field is so vast. “I like cyber because it’s challenging, and I like the idea of helping fight cybercriminals. I have always liked programming, so cybersecurity seemed like a natural thing to fall into,” Jay said. “When I got accepted to U-Penn., I received the NASA internship that same day. A minute before my stats class started, my mom told me the news. I was pretty much jumping up and down and running around. I texted Dr. Marfai the news. April 15 was a great day!”

When asked about his most important lesson, Jay knows it was perseverance and Phoenix College math faculty. “They made a difference for me. I am autistic. I wouldn’t be where I am without them. Without Sousa’s math videos, I wouldn’t have had straight As. It’s not where you start, it’s about the work you put in.”

“Jay is a beautiful soul,” said Dr. Marfai. “His accomplishments are that much more significant knowing this backstory. It says a lot about Jay and his determination to succeed, and what all our students at Phoenix College are capable of if given a chance to thrive.”