Valerie Gill, inspired by Star Trek, dreams of becoming an astronaut one day. But right now, she’ll happily settle with a life and career spent as an aerospace engineer, U.S. Air Force captain, substitute teacher, and mother of five daughters.
Gill, the subject of our first “How Star Trek Changed My Life” profile series, describes herself as an Air Force brat, born in Tacoma, Washington, and raised in Denver, Colorado. It was her cousin, Ron Miles, who turned her on to the original Star Trek series.
Gill loved what she saw on her TV. Like many African American children who glimpsed the original series, her eyes and mind could barely contain their excitement over the fact that a woman of color – Lt. Uhura (portrayed by Nichelle Nichols) – played a major role on the show and on the U.S.S. Enterprise.
“Seeing Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek as a child let me know that there was a place for me where there was no discrimination, and that all races could work together for a better future,” shares Gill.
Several years later, while working for Bell Labs as part of a summer program to introduce “non-whites and females” to the field of engineering, Gill experienced her “eureka” moment. “I wanted to know about the different types of engineering, so I looked them up in the library at work,” Gill recalls. “I remember clearly saying to myself, ‘What do I like?’ And I thought of Star Trek immediately and chose astronautical engineering. Since few colleges had that degree and scholarships were a must, I ended up at the University of Colorado in Boulder, getting my bachelors of science in aerospace engineering.”
Gill, degree in hand, joined the Air Force intent on becoming a navigator. However, a master’s degree was required to become a mission specialist, putting a crimp in her plans to become an astronaut. She ultimately worked for the Department of Defense until her honorable discharge as a captain of the U.S. Air Force. These days, Gill is a substitute math and science teacher in Aurora, Colorado.
She’s still a Star Trek fan, too. Gill named one of her children after Deanna Troi, and her kids often accompany her to local Star Trek conventions. At one convention, she met Nichelle Nichols. “It meant a lot to meet Ms. Nichols face-to-face because I could tell her how much she impacted my life,” Gill says. “I also gave her a sketch I did of her as Lt. Uhura. She told me the story of how she met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a time she was thinking about leaving the show, and he convinced her not to, for which I’m forever thankful. He loved watching the show and he let her know how important her presence was to other Black Americans. It reinforced what I’d been taught by my parents, that you never know how you may affect someone else’s life, so impact them in a positive way, which hopefully I’m doing now as a mother and teacher.”
Of course, Gill saw the most recent Star Trek feature. She loved it and was “impressed with how Zoe Saldana kept the essence of Uhura – the intelligence, strength, independence and beauty – but made the character her own.”
Meanwhile, Gill hasn’t abandoned her dream of one day becoming an astronaut. “What would thrill me most about going into space would be navigating the stars,” she concludes. “I hope to find a future where there is unconditional acceptance, trust and respect, things that are getting harder and harder to find in this world today.”
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This article was originally published on July 16, 2010.
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