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Beauty & Brains - The Cheerleading Rocket Scientist

Beauty & Brains - The Cheerleading Rocket Scientist

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This is a true story; there is no punch line at the end of the article... except maybe for girls who are still consistently told that pretty girls are not smart. I've had men say inconsiderate things to me because I'm not ugly. Summer Williams is a Houston Texans cheerleader. She's also an aerospace engineer for the Jacobs Engineering Group, which is NASA's main scientific support contractor.

Summer Williams, a small town Kansan native, is an Assistant Project Manager on the group that figures out how to keep the international space station habitable. Summer William's father is also an engineer who once told her at the impressionable age of seven that smart girls didn't want to be cheerleaders. For a long time, she held the same belief.

"There was a girl I knew who went to a top state university and whose aspiration was always to be a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader," she said. "I remember thinking, How can that be your lifelong dream? "

In Kansas, most pretty girls with rhythm become cheerleaders, except for Williams. Williams stole the spotlight when she was three years old when she shuffled away from a baby sitter, climbed onto a stage, where her parents were taking a couples dancing class. Soon after, she took tap, ballet and jazz and even did some clogging. During high school she worked at a dance studio to pay for the lessons her performance troupe required. She did get peer pressured into giving cheerleading a try her junior year, but, she said cheerleading "just wasn't my thing." While other High Schools girls are obsessing about making the cheerleading quad, Summer Williams says she just wanted to be smart.

Her first dream job was to be a forensic pathologist until her ninth grade science teacher had her class watch Apollo 13 and she became incredibly curious about the people left behind on the ground. Every math and science elective her high school offered, Williams took. Her senior year, she wrote several essays, underwent a two day observation at problem-solving and group class, and won a $10,000 scholarship from Cessna.

She continued to Wichita State, received her aerospace engineering degree and didn't watch much football. After graduation, she got her job at Jacobs and moved to Houston. Every time she went home, her mom pulled people over and said, "This is my daughter. She's an engineer at NASA."

That first year Williams was in Houston, Jacobs had a family day at Astro World, a now torn down amusement park. She went with some co-workers and when they saw an advertisement at Reliant Stadium trumpeting cheerleader tryouts, Williams joked about trying out so she could finally see an NFL field. However, it was only a joke... A year later, one of her colleagues sent her a link to the 2005 tryouts. He and another co-worker had decided the best way to meet girls was for Williams to become a cheerleader. They'd buy her lunch, once a week for a year, if she'd try out.

"I stood on that line with 1,000 gorgeous women and I called them and said, You're going to owe me sushi every week," she said.

Than a strange thing happened, she made it into the half-cut group. Then into the 75 that got the two week rehearsal audition. Being unique she did the exact opposite of showcasing her beauty, she went to the personality interview in a suit, carrying her rocket scientist resume. She got picked.

She couldn't believe it, she was totally mortified, and terrified of what her colleagues would think. "I didn't want people to lose any respect for me," Williams said. "There is this perception about what a cheerleader is."

The Texans cheerleaders are indeed pom squad coaches and fitness instructors and aspiring singers. There's also a Stanford grad who works at a major investment management firm and a woman who coordinates patient care for a home healthcare agency in the group. In her first year, Williams did receive several raised eyebrows from the cheerleaders for her outside-football life; her second, not so much.

"The Texans are a somewhat conservative organization," she said. "Football is about family and they absolutely want well-rounded people working for them."

While the cheerleaders do not interact with players, they do interact with ticket holders and sponsors and fans, and every week. The five (out of 33) cheerleaders who don't make that game's on-field squad spend the game playing ambassador and is a vital part of the game day experience.

What is it really like to be a professional Cheerleader?

"Obviously my perception and opinion of cheerleaders has changed drastically. All the girls have to work their butts off."

Starting in June, Texans cheerleaders practice three days a week, increasing to four days once the season starts. Williams current project manager is in Germany, which for the last month has meant Williams works too many frequent 6:30 a.m. to midnight days.

The biggest surprise, she said, is that there's no cattiness, no personal subterfuge. This is the first time she's worked with all women. Her 40 + person project at NASA has only two other women and they love her moonlighting job. She added that her cheerleading gig has somehow made her more confident.

Summer's boyfriend, who is a Raytheon pilot, believe that her NASA career should cover the self confident aspect, but he supports her cheerleading. When Williams returns home now, her mom ask waitresses, "Did you know you're serving a Houston Texans cheerleader?"

Part of her cheerleading contract includes 30 community service appearances a year. During the last week of this season, she helped run a junior cheer program for 100 girls, age 6-12. The little girls learned a dance, than danced it at halftime with the grown-up girls. One little girl hadn't wanted to put on her little white boots and perform because she was sure she'd embarrass herself. Williams had casually told the girl everything would be fine just before the show. The little girl believed her and everything went smoothly. After the performance, the little girl's mother told Williams about her daughter's fear and reluctance to perform in public.

"I had no idea I had the power to inspire young people the way that I apparently did," Williams said, sounding a little choked up. "I never even knew I would want to," and she never knew she wanted to be a cheerleader either.

Cheerleading can be something to be proud of. Williams does occasionally sound a little unsure, if not defensive, and she does, after all, say things like, "Beauty doesn't last forever," and "I'd much prefer people speak of me as an engineer."

Yet, even as Williams sits at the Johnson Space Center, helping open new worlds for future exploration, it's the cheerleading gig that's let her open new worlds for little girls who can see that you can be pretty smart.



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