A youth ambassador program that encourages future STEM leaders announced its next Flight Crew of 43 girls, including a Navy JROTC cadet.
Ariana Perez, a 17-year-old junior from Placentia, California, was named to the Million Girls Moonshot 2023 Flight Crew. The program, a movement of STEM Next Opportunity Fund, is a charity to bring high-quality STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) opportunities to youth around the nation while closing the gender gap in STEM careers. This year’s Flight Crew was announced as a STEM Next commitment to the White House National Space Council’s priority to promote career awareness of space opportunities.
“When I learned I got selected, that was really cool,” said Ariana. “There are not too many things in high school where you get accepted on a national level, so that was pretty big for me.”
Ariana, a cadet at her high school’s Navy JROTC program since her freshman year, said she became interested in STEM activities in elementary school. Since then, she has competed in STEM competitions via CyberPatriot, a military association-affiliated contest for students to find and fix cybersecurity vulnerabilities in virtual operating systems.
An only child, Ariana has parents who provided her with plenty of STEM-related opportunities from a young age. She says she is passionate about providing those same opportunities to other girls.
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“With the younger girls we talk to, they feel like they can’t do STEM stuff because maybe they’ve been told certain things about their abilities in the past,” Ariana said. “I don’t think a lot of people think about what they say to girls about STEM, and I’ve seen how that has an impact on young girls, especially when they hear it from their peers or see it on media.”
Ariana discovered Million Girls Moonshot while researching STEM opportunities for girls. She was immediately attracted to its mission, applying for the Flight Crew with her parents’ permission.
“I think just being there to give the support and encouragement is definitely something that every girl should have,” she said. “And I can do that through Million Girls Moonshot.”
That’s exactly what Teresa Drew, deputy director of STEM Next, loves to hear: that more girls are not only learning about and participating in STEM activities, but they are becoming ambassadors for the field.
“When we launched Million Girls Moonshot, we were working with the afterschool community, hearing from lot of stakeholders, including program folks and different educational stakeholders, but who we weren’t hearing from was the kids directly,” Drew said. “We knew if we really wanted to reflect the needs and aspirations of young people and girls interested in STEM, we needed to have a group of people we could regularly ask what they think and want, and hear their stories, and really be working on their behalf.”
The Flight Crew was the result, taking off for the first time with 16 young people in 2022. This year, the group expanded to 43 middle and high schoolers from 37 states who were already involved with afterschool STEM activities. Someday, Drew added, they hope to have a girl represented from every state.
Ariana was chosen for her acumen in cybersecurity, Drew said.
“There’s a huge opportunity in cybersecurity for young people and girls. This is an industry, especially when thinking about the cyber vulnerabilities of our country at large, where we need to have a brain trust that’s representative of the country at large,” she said. “Ariana represents that, and we wanted to make sure we had someone like her, sharing what she’s been doing and how she gives back in STEM.”
As part of the Flight Crew, Ariana will get speaking and mentoring opportunities throughout 2023, as well as the chance to bond with other Flight Crew members through monthly Zoom meetings and STEM challenges. She dreams of one day working in cybersecurity or law, possibly after attending West Point or another military academy.
“I’m definitely excited,” she said. “I get to work with this team of girls who all share the same passion — we want to make a difference and make STEM more applicable for everyone.”