Taking to the Azure Skies: How a Hillsdale Math Degree Jumpstarted a Career in Aerospace Engineering

Written by Gianna Green

Nikki Harris Mocny, ’11, graduated from Hillsdale College with a degree in mathematics, assuming she would head off to California to pursue a career in teaching. Instead, she became a systems integration engineer on a spacecraft program at Boeing—without going to graduate school. 

“It was while I was working on my prerequisites for a master’s in education that I decided that being a math teacher wasn’t my calling,” she said. Instead, she leaned back into a career she had been passionate about since her youth but had set aside when she decided to study math in college.

“I was always passionate about math and grew up being told I should be an engineer,” Nikki said. While dual enrolled, she tore through the math curriculum at both her high school and local community college and graduated at 16. After starting college at Michigan Tech, she found out she already had all the credits needed for a math major. Because she wanted to take additional math classes in the liberal arts tradition, she transferred to Hillsdale College where, ironically, in pursuit of a math degree, she was able to start her career in aerospace engineering ahead of schedule. 

The job came much faster than expected. While she was applying to graduate schools, she got an offer from Boeing after just one phone interview. So, Nikki moved back to Santa Barbara and took her job at Boeing at the Vandenberg Air Force Base where she worked on the data team for missile testing. Her team consisted of a number of people who worked on the space shuttle and space station project, and she gained a lot of secondhand knowledge about space engineering. In an interesting, non-traditional celebration, Nikki marked her 21st birthday in a missile field in Alaska. 

Despite her lack of official engineering background, Nikki’s degree in math from Hillsdale College was impressive in the eyes of her colleagues, especially after graduating at the young age of 19. While she was at the College, her most influential class was Non-Euclidean Geometry with Dr. David Murphy. 

“Most engineers say that math is objective, and it has a definitive answer, but this class shows that math has a much more creative side than what most people are taught,” she said. While on campus, she would make a case to her peers in politics, philosophy, and literature classes that four of the seven liberal arts are rooted in mathematics. During her time at Hillsdale, Nikki wrote for many College publications in defense of math. 

“Math is taught incorrectly,” she said. “Math is not a ladder. There is more creativity to it than that. Math doesn’t just get harder and harder. Memorizing equations and formulas is like taking a paint-by-numbers class and calling it art.”

One of Nikki’s favorite professors outside of her major was Professor of History Richard Gamble. His class presentation style stuck with Nikki into her professional career, and she has mimicked his style of communication. “Dr. Gamble was good at helping you decipher context and being aware of what you don’t know. Not jumping to conclusions is important in data analytics. There is a lot you don’t know, which is where strong critical thinking skills are helpful.”

When asked about what advice she would give to a Hillsdale student in her shoes, she said, “Talk to your professors directly about your interests. They will be so helpful, especially in the science departments where you need to get experience in research. They have great connections and can help you get the internships you want. Start to add a level of professionalism to your everyday assignments. My numerical analysis class helped instill a professionalism structure because, although it didn’t feel like it was necessary in class, it is in the real world.” 

Nikki is still working for Boeing but in a new role as a product owner in commercial services analytics with Boeing Global Services. She lives in Washington State with her husband, Anthony ’11, and her three children—Marie, Joey, and Teddy. 

Gianna Green is the Editor in Chief of the Student Stories Blog. She also serves as Hillsdale College’s Social Media Manager. She graduated from Hillsdale in 2017 with a degree in Marketing and Management.

Published in April 2021