FAIRMONT -- Homer Hickam, native West Virginian and author of the best-selling book, "Rocket Boys," told a gathering of seventh graders on Friday about one of the best reasons to consider going to college.
"You have to consider that you'll be going there with other students your own age who are also there to learn, and you will have a lot of fun. It can be some of the best years of your life," he said.
Hickam, who is in town to serve as this morning's commencement speaker at Fairmont State College, took time to talk with a group of more than 300 Marion County middle school students who visited the campus on Friday.
All the students are participants in the Gear-Up Program, a five-year, federally funded program, administrated by FSC, that encourages middle school students to plan for higher education and to gear their studies toward that goal.
Hickam said he appreciated the chance to speak to the students.
"I'm always happy to come back to my home state, and it's especially nice to talk about Gear-Up," he said.
"Everybody should try to go to college, regardless of their economic status. I hope that I can encourage some of them to do that," he said.
Hickam, who grew up in Coalwood in southern West Virginia, told the students that it was important to have a dream and to cultivate a passion that would help them to fulfill that dream.
He first decided to pursue a career in the aerospace industry after the Russians launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. Though his father expected Hickam to follow in his footsteps and work in the mines, his mother supported his plans to go to college.
A U.S. Army veteran, Hickam went on to work at NASA in Hunstville, Ala., as an aerospace engineer. He became a best selling author after his retirement, and his book was later made into the movie, "October Sky."
"One of the underlying themes of the book is that the Rocket Boys all wanted to go to college. They looked around to see that their life and the world was changing and that the job your father had might not still be there when you graduated from high school," he said.
Troy Eddy and Dustin Simons, seventh graders at Rivesville Middle School, sat on the back row listening to Hickam talk about his early life.
"I think it's pretty nice to be able to come here and to hear someone speak who grew up in West Virginia and went on to work at NASA," said Simons.
Terry Cunningham, a guidance counselor from Rivesville sitting nearby, agreed.
"The Gear-Up program will give these students so many opportunities that they wouldn't have otherwise. There's no way we could afford to have Homer Hickam come to speak to us, but this program has provided that for us," Cunningham said.
Staff writer Gail Marsh can be reached at 626-1447.