Political science graduate answers NASA's call
A phone call from NASA is not something many of us receive. Dawn Oliver, a 1997 political science graduate, remembers receiving the call shortly after committing to a different job.
“I went to a job fair toward the end of law school and applied to NASA. I received a letter stating I did not get the job, so I had agreed to work for a judge in Florence, Alabama. Then, I get this call from Mr. Doug Hendrickson and he said, ‘Dawn, are you interested in coming to work for NASA?”
Thankfully, her predicament of already committing to a job was alleviated by another phone call.
“I called Judge Suttle and mentioned to him that I had been offered a permanent position with NASA. He said, ‘Oh, that’s fine. That’s a permanent job, go for it. It sounds like a great opportunity.’ And I was very thankful to him for doing that because it has turned into a wonderful opportunity.”
The Montgomery native said she knew she wanted to be an attorney since she was in sixth grade and has never swayed from that decision.
“A teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said, ‘I want to be a lawyer.’ I’m the kind of person that if I say something, I’m going to do it if I’m able.”
Being true to her word is something that has led Oliver to visit all seven continents. It is what drives her toward her next goal of competing a 5k race in each of the 50 states (she’s completed 12, so far). And it is part of what led her to being named NASA’s Attorney of the Year in 2016.
When asked how she achieves all of this, she responds “by the grace of God.” Oliver is also dedicated to the three principals she lives by: to learn, to serve, and to explore. Oliver said that volunteerism is a great way to achieve all three of those principals. “When I was very young, my mother always encouraged us to volunteer. She knew I wanted to be a lawyer, so she would tell me to go volunteer at a legal office, or volunteer at the Alabama Supreme Court Law Library.”
Oliver believes when people volunteer, they have the opportunity to serve others, meet others and explore interests.
During her time at Auburn, Oliver belonged to the honor society Phi Eta Sigma, and the service society Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. Oliver became president of Alpha Kappa Alpha and participated in many community service projects – including at a retirement home called Eve’s House. There she helped host Bingo and social activities for the residents. She volunteered with various organizations around Auburn and received the Outstanding Service Scholarship and Leadership Award in her last year at Auburn. In addition to volunteering and her commitment to her studies, Oliver played flute in the Auburn University Marching Band for three years. During law school at the University of Alabama, Oliver was president of the Black Law Student Association and chairperson of Law Week, and she was a senior editor on the Law and Psychology Review journal. She was awarded the Order of the Samaritan, an award given to people who are committed to community service during their law school career. She was one of the first recipients of the award.
Oliver still makes time for Auburn and for volunteering. She currently serves on the College of Liberal Arts Dean’s Advisory Board, and is the diversity and inclusion chair for the Houston area Auburn Club. She also volunteers at the Literacy Advance Houston where she works with people from all over the world as an English instructor. Her class is made up of people for whom English is a second language. “We all arrive in that room— people from China, from the Middle East, from South America, and Mexico—and we share our stories with each other. I learn so much from them because I’m serving them, and I’m learning the reason why they want to come to our country, which gives me a greater appreciation for living in America and inspires me to want to do more for people.”
Before moving to Houston in 2012, Oliver worked for a few other NASA offices. She was originally hired on at Kennedy Space Center as an assistant chief counsel. In 2003, she had the opportunity to work at NASA HQ in Washington, D.C. and serve on the Educator Astronaut Program team for six months. In 2012, she was accepted into NASA’s mid-level leadership program and was given the opportunity to work at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, where she has been ever since. Her primary work is in procurement law.
Even though work, traveling, and volunteering keep her very busy, Oliver maintains that her family and her faith are also priorities she makes time for. “My parents still live in Alabama, so throughout the year I go home, or they come here, or we go to my brother’s house—we try to get together a whole lot. Spending time with my family and with my church are both very important to me.”
“My parents and my college education are part of the foundation of the life that I have been afforded to have. I think it’s important to keep in contact with the university. I think everybody should do that because it’s important to give back to the things that have given to you.”