‘I didn’t ... know I wanted it.’ First-generation Kentucky college grad gets NASA dream job

Recent University of Kentucky graduate Bryan Willis completed an internship program at Johnson Space Center in Houston and is now embarking on a career as an engineer at NASA.
Recent University of Kentucky graduate Bryan Willis completed an internship program at Johnson Space Center in Houston and is now embarking on a career as an engineer at NASA. Photo submitted

Growing up in Southern Kentucky, Bryan Willis had a lot of jobs.

He started out doing farm work as a 15-year-old.

He worked as a dishwasher at a mom-and-pop restaurant.

There was the summer he spent at a chicken plant.

And then there are the 13 months cumulatively that he worked in engineering at NASA.

Willis landed a Pathways internship at NASA soon after beginning engineering coursework at the University of Kentucky, and he has spent the past three summers working at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Upon graduating from the University of Kentucky with a degree in computer engineering in December, he accepted a full-time position as a data systems engineer with NASA.

But the journey has been a somewhat unlikely one.

Willis, who grew up in Tompkinsville and Burkesville, is a first-generation college graduate.

He said his parents, who both earned their GEDs, always encouraged him to further his education, and scholarships helped pay for his tuition.

But going into college, he said, “I really had no idea what I wanted to do.”

Willis spent his first three semesters at UK as a pre-med major before it occurred to him that “I didn’t feel passionate about any of it.”

“If I was going to do something for 40 years, I have to like it,” he said.

Switching majors came with a complication, though. It meant he wouldn’t graduate in four years, so he would have to pay for two semesters of schooling without the assistance of scholarships.

Willis ultimately decided it was worth it to make the change, but this time, he said, “I wanted to be sure I made the correct decision.”

He immediately began seeking co-op and internship opportunities so he could get a taste of what his future as a computer engineer would be like.

The only problem was, he had not had the same amount of coursework as the other students, and he didn’t have much experience with the interview process.

“I was really just outclassed,” he said.

But Willis didn’t let that deter him.

He interviewed for job after job, even positions he really wasn’t very interested in, just to get the experience of interviewing.

When he got an email about the NASA program, Willis had had plenty of practice answering interview questions, and his confidence showed.

Once accepted into the Pathways program, Willis said it became clear to him that he had found his fit.

His most recent work with NASA, and the work he’ll now be doing full-time, is on a redesigned spacesuit.

Specifically, he said, he’ll be working on the software for the portable life support system astronauts carry on their backs while outside in space.

“It’s basically the software that runs the entire suit,” Willis said.

He said the world will need that technology for a trip to Mars.

“It’ll be a long time, but I think we will (go there) for sure,” he said.

After enjoying Christmas with family, including four siblings who are thinking about college, Willis was moving to Houston, he said in a recent interview.

His fiancee, Kelsey Spivey, who he’s dated for 7 years, was going along.. A recent college grad herself, Spivey landed a job as an event concierge at a swanky downtown Houston hotel.

While they will certainly miss having him close by, Willis said his family is extremely excited for his future.

And so is he.

“I love my job. I love the people I work with. All of them love their job,” he said. “It’s exactly what I wanted, and I didn’t even know I wanted it. But I do now.”