SSgt Mercedes Catchings, MN National Guard Volunteer and Former STARBASE Student 

Mercedes Catchings, a Staff Sergeant with the 133rd Airlift Wing Readiness Squadron of the MN National Guard, let out a cheer and high five as she launched her newly designed rocket for a perfect flight on Picture1a recent beautiful and rainy May morning.  The updated design with new, 3-D printed fins may have had something to do with this momentous launch, a bit of a sharp contrast with 18 years ago when a young Mercedes STARBASE fourth grader tried to launch her rocket and much to her disappointment, it failed with barely a sputter on the launch pad.

While “failure” may have some negative connotations to some, it’s quite the opposite for Mercedes and for STARBASE as instructors constantly reinforce to these young and hopeful scientists and engineers that without failure there would be no innovation; without perseverance there is no reward.  Those are exactly the kinds of messages that Mercedes gives students during the Q & A portion of STARBASE graduations where students are fascinated to learn that she, herself, was a STARBASE student many years ago when she attended Hamilton Elementary School in North Minneapolis.  “My advice to you is to stick with it.  Dream big, make plans, avoid negative thoughts and never give up”, Mercedes says. “And be kind and respectful always, because it will help you get further in life.”

Mercedes embodies that sage advice.  As a child, Mercedes didn’t have much, she said, born of young parents and helped raised by her grandmother for which she is forever grateful.  School was pretty easy Picture2for her throughout elementary and high school, graduating from Washburn High School in Minneapolis in 2008, but became a bit overwhelming, Mercedes said, when she started her post-secondary education.  While today she’s finished her Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management, she remembers seeking more structure during that time in her life.  She recognized that the Air Force could not only give her that structure, but would also expand her skillset and opportunities.  She joined the Air Force in 2010.

Today, SSgt Mercedes is responsible for helping to prepare MN National Guard units for deployment, including helping to coordinate benefits, necessary paperwork, and preparing families for what can become many months away from home.   Mercedes also provides readiness reports to the Pentagon and she, along with a General in the same branch, was recently honored in the 2017 National African American History Month recognition on the DoD website. She also serves as an Inclusion Ambassador, helping to reach out to underrepresented areas of the community, specifically high school students, to let them know about the outstanding opportunities in the MN National Guard.  “I love reaching out to young people Picture4who don’t think that the military can be a reality.  I like being that person they can relate to.”

And, relate they do.   At a recent STARBASE graduation of students from Keewaydin-Lake Nokomis School, the school where Mercedes’ 8-year-old attends and where members from the 133rd mentor students in after-school STEM programs, students peppered SSgt Catchings with questions about the favorite aspects of her job, the places she’s been, the necessity of teamwork, and what she remembered from when she was a STARBASE student herself.  While the program and technologies have changed a lot since Mercedes went through STARBASE and the A12 Blackbird that she loved seeing is now in Washington, DC, Mercedes credits STARBASE for showing her how fun STEM learning can be.  Despite the thousands of students who have come through STARBASE’s doors since Mercedes, all the rockets launched since she launched hers, and the thousands more students who will enjoy STARBASE in the years to come, having fun while learning is something that STARBASE will always strive for.

Congratulations, Mercedes, on your successful launch 18 years later!  Thank you for being such an inspiration to Twin Cities’ youth and helping them seek greater heights!

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