The path to obtaining his undergraduate degree has been anything but traditional for Terelle Cadd. Just a decade ago, Cadd was working as a warehouse package handler for United Parcel Service (UPS). Fresh out of high school, the possibility of attending college seemed remote. He was neither prepared academically for postsecondary education, nor in a position to financially afford the tuition.

Facing such academic, financial, and cultural hurdles, there were certainly times when he was tempted to give up. However, Cadd possesses a tireless work ethic and through guidance from faculty, professional mentors, and family, he has successfully diverted from the “easy” path and reset his course.

“Beginning so far away from the finish line while working to pay for school can be challenging and discouraging,” said Cadd. “I nearly dropped out at the start due to feeling too far behind academically and overwhelmed with self-doubt. However, I knew that I could not achieve my dreams unless I persevered through the tough times.”

In May, Cadd will proudly walk across the stage in Lane Stadium to accept his bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech. In recognition of his outstanding academic scholarship, leadership amongst his peers, and his service to the university and the community, Cadd has been named the Outstanding Senior for the College of Engineering

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Growing up in Roanoke, it could have been very easy for Cadd to settle. Living in a single-parent home, he and his younger sister watched their mother work multiple jobs while also pursuing her degree. Cadd marveled that his mother always maintained a positive attitude, and he never once sensed that giving up was an option. 

At 17, he took on a part-time job at UPS. He worked hard, put in long hours, and earned a quick promotion to a supervisory role. The path he was on had the potential to turn into a promising career and provide a somewhat comfortable lifestyle. He enrolled at Virginia Western Community College and began working toward an associate degree in business. 

Something was missing, though. Wanting more out of his career, Cadd switched his major to engineering. “I wanted to change the world one day, and I believed that the engineering path would align with my new goals,” said Cadd. “Like many young engineers, I wanted to work for NASA and become an astronaut, but to my naïve younger self, these goals seemed absolutely unobtainable.”

With a lower-than-average high school GPA, Cadd had to start from the beginning and enrolled in remedial level classes to get himself up to speed with the required math for his engineering courses. Feeling overwhelmed and plagued with self-doubt — coupled with the strain of working long hours — there were periods when he nearly called it quits. But after successfully completing his first round of engineering courses at the top of his class, he found the confidence he needed to push ahead. 

A major turning point came when he applied to STEM Takes Flight, one of NASA’s internship programs sponsored by the Virginia Space Grant Consortium. Cadd knew the odds of being selected were slim and was ecstatic to learn that he had been chosen to participate as a guest researcher with the NASA Advanced Exploration Systems project.

“Words cannot describe the emotion I felt when I was accepted,” said Cadd. “This seemingly unrealistic goal had been achieved, and I took a leap of faith as I parted from a company that I had worked with for eight years to continue pursuing my dream.” 

At NASA Langley Research Center, Cadd finally had the chance to apply the knowledge he had obtained in the classroom and utilize it in real-world applications. The experience also opened his eyes to the endless space missions, various research projects, and the teams driving them — realizing that he, too, could be a part of it all. 

He transferred into the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering at Virginia Tech in fall 2019. On campus, Cadd established connections and found mentors who not only challenged him academically, but encouraged him to explore extracurricular research opportunities. H. Pat Artis, professor of practice in aerospace and ocean engineering, serves as instructor for Introduction to Aerospace Engineering and often forms a close connection with sophomores and transfer students at the beginning of their time in the department. 

“Terelle is exceptional — one of a kind — in so many ways,” said Artis. “It was not that he was just the top student in my class, rather, he recorded the highest grade on every test and assignment during the semester. His maturity, sense of duty, eagerness to learn, and curiosity are unmatched.”

Artis supervised Cadd for two semesters on a research project to design, build, and fly a thrust vector control guided rocket. He also connected Cadd with professors and research groups in the aerospace and ocean engineering department for additional undergraduate research opportunities.

As part of Professor K. Todd Lowe’s research group, Cadd worked to improve applied laser flow measurements, resulting in a system now used by all aerospace students in a junior level lab. The new tool allows students hands-on access to some of the most advanced technology available for aerodynamic measurement. 

Cadd also joined the team working on the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative Battle Drones program. Working under research scientist Kevin Schroeder, the group developed 3D-printed drones to outfit educational outreach kits for high school STEM teams. Cadd was responsible for designing, modeling, and optimizing the entire 3D printable drone with the objective of reducing the vehicle’s cost and weight. 

As part of the prestigious NASA Academy program, Cadd (second from top left) was selected as team lead for a group of 23 multidisciplinary engineers on a project to use NASA technology to upgrade wildland firefighting equipment. The team developed an image processing algorithm for drone technology to detect and plot wildfire perimeters in real-time. Along with this algorithm, an app was also created allowing for a more effective method of reporting fires using citizen science.
As part of the prestigious NASA Academy program, Cadd (second from top left) was selected as team lead for a group of 23 multidisciplinary engineers on a project to use NASA technology to upgrade wildland firefighting equipment. The team developed an image-processing algorithm for drone technology to detect and plot wildfire perimeters in real time. Along with this algorithm, an app was created for a more effective method of reporting fires using citizen science. Photo courtesy of Terelle Cadd.

Industry research opportunities continued to flow in. In summer 2020, he returned to NASA Langley as a research associate on Elizabeth Ward’s team, as part of the prestigious NASA Academy program.

“I have worked with hundreds of undergraduates and dozens of graduate students over the course of my 40-year career,” said Ward. “The last 28 years, I have been working directly with NASA interns. Among those groups, I place Terelle Cadd in the very top tier of students with whom I have worked. He not only has a critical set of academic skills, he is also a natural leader that demonstrates the necessary people skills that enable success on many levels.”

As part of the NASA Academy for two consecutive years, Cadd’s team projects included designing a multi-modal rover that could autonomously navigate within GPS-denied environments and using NASA drone technology to detect and plot wildfire perimeters in real time. 

“These projects required multiple disciplines, and I loved every minute of it because it exposed me to the other fields of engineering that I had not yet encountered,” he said. “This is where I found that I did not just have a passion for space, but for robotics and all potential applications for it, as well.” 

Terelle Cadd is a Class of 2022 Astronaut Scholarship winner, only the fourth student from Virginia Tech to receive the prestigious honor.
At the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s 2021 Innovators Gala, Cadd was recognized alongside 60 scholars from more than 40 universities as one of the best and brightest minds in STEM. Photo courtesy of Steve Torres and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

Continuing his record of outstanding academic performance, Cadd was awarded the highly competitive Astronaut Scholarship in 2021, making him only the fourth Virginia Tech student to receive the prestigious award. The honor, worth $15,000, is awarded by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation to the best and brightest minds in STEM who show initiative, creativity, and excellence. In addition to the financial benefits of the award, Cadd was paired with an industry mentor with more than 40 years experience in the space sciences, Gotthard Janson, for the current academic year.

The program also introduced Cadd to a network of hardworking, like-minded students from more than 40 universities. The group of Astronaut Scholars have built a supportive community, lifting one another up as they navigate the next stages of their careers.

Cadd has also been a recipient of the Kevin T. Crofton Engineering Student Scholarship and the Peter and Phyllis Prudent Scholarship from the College of Engineering. Throughout his time at Virginia Tech, he has maintained a 4.0 grade-point average and been named to the dean’s list for five consecutive semesters. 

After commencement, he plans to stay in Blacksburg to continue his education and obtain his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. As part of Jonathan Black’s research group, Cadd will be performing multidisciplinary research for small satellites and autonomous space applications. The group is exploring the use of space robotics and testing autonomy, hardware-in-the-loop, and computer/machine learning algorithms. 

Immensely grateful for his experiences, opportunities, and connections, Cadd’s perception of his role as an engineer in the world has shifted. He has realized that changing the world is not solely done through advancing technology, but through inspiring and guiding others. Following the example set by previous mentors, professors, colleagues, and, most importantly, his mother, he strives to be a leader who inspires others to get active, achieve the unthinkable, and replace any doubt within themselves with confidence.

Because of the funding provided by the Astronaut Scholarship, Cadd was able to take his final semester off from working to pay for his education. Eager to uphold Virginia Tech’s motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), he has utilized the time he had left on campus to volunteer and mentor others. In sharing his story, he hopes to inspire others of similar means and backgrounds to dive into STEM fields and seek opportunities that were previously thought out of reach.

“I would be lying if I said my journey was not difficult,” said Cadd. “I’ve dealt with personal battles, racism, and the truly challenging task of completely turning my life around, and overcoming these types of hurdles can be too much for some people. There are many others with a background similar to mine who, unfortunately, don’t make it through the seemingly uphill battle. In pursuit of my dreams, I have found that helping others achieve their goals and aspirations has become equally as important and gratifying as achieving my own.”


Written by Jama Green; video by Spencer Roberts.

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