By: Brianna Goodall

Brandon Velasco earned his Bachelor of Science in Astrophysics on May 4, 2024, as part of only the second cohort to graduate with this major from Old Dominion University. He wasn’t sure if he could afford college or handle the rigorous academic setting, but with some calculated choices, he made it to the finish line.  

Raised in a primarily military family, Velasco lived all over the South. He spent most of his teenage years in Raeford, North Carolina and graduated from Hoke County High School in 2018. Affordability was the driving factor for Velasco to pursue college at ODU. To his surprise, because his grandfather lived in Virginia he qualified for in-state tuition at ODU. “I wasn't the most scholarly person in high school, and I really didn't know what I wanted to do at all for a major, but I just knew I liked science and math,” said Velasco.

With his acceptance to ODU, Velasco first committed to an engineering major, and like many students, some things did not go as planned. “So, during my first year here I was still figuring a lot of things out because I really didn't know how to be a student properly,” said Velasco. “I took a year break.” During his time away Velasco reevaluated his goals.   

In 2019, during his time away from ODU he worked as a cemetery director. In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, and his job became all encompassing. When most people were quarantined because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Velasco had to be the support for families during their hardest times of grief and loss, and that changed his mindset. “That job had its highs of helping families get the help they needed in a very hard time period, but it also had some really low lows,” said Velasco. “It left me getting home, absolutely not wanting to do anything, and the only thing I could find enjoyment in was going on Wikipedia and looking at things, just trying to learn something to take my mind off things.” Velasco experienced some eye-opening moments that left him unfulfilled, and he realized he “wanted to learn about the dynamics of the universe and everything that happened.”

In the fall of 2020, Velasco returned to ODU with a fresh start and with a new attitude. He was committed to returning to ODU and made some changes. “I’m not going to school just because my friends are going to school, I’m going to do this for me,” said Velasco.

Within his year back, not only did he immediately change his major from Engineering to Astrophysics, but he was diagnosed with a learning difference. “When I came back, I still definitely had a lot of figuring out to do and got diagnosed with ADHD and that explained a lot of my problems with school,” said Velasco. “But since then, it's just been trying to figure out little steps that can make my learning just a little bit easier every year.”  

His love of learning continued to expand through his curiosity for space and the celestial bodies. “This is around the time in which ODU had introduced astrophysics, so I never heard of an astrophysics degree being offered at a bachelor's level,” said Velasco. “As soon as I saw the opportunity I was like, ‘I have to take it’ as long as I can keep staying in this field, I'll be happy.”

Velasco thoroughly enjoyed learning about the universe, and it was through switching to astrophysics that he became more connected and got involved in research with faculty in the Department of Physics at ODU. Velasco worked with physicist and Jefferson Lab researcher Ted Rogers, Ph.D. on computational sciences which focused heavily on data analytics, math, and programming. For his senior thesis project, he worked with ODU Associate Professor Balša Terzić, Ph.D. and will continue to do research over the summer with Terzić.

While working with these renowned professors, Velasco became interconnected with more physics opportunities outside of the classroom. Perry Nerem, chief departmental advisor, introduced Velasco to the Society of Physics Students (SPS). Also, Justin Mason, director of ODU’s Michael and Kimthanh Lê Planetarium has been the pillar of his education, guiding him immensely, and offering opportunities to further his knowledge. Professor Nerem spoke highly of Velasco saying, “Brandon dedicates himself to his passion for astrophysics and works relentlessly towards understanding the universe.”

Through SPS, Velasco found a community that shared the same interests and experiences as him. “SPS has given me crazy opportunities for presenting research or scholarship opportunities,” said Velasco. “Some of my closest friends are strictly through SPS, people that are in different universities now completely across the United States, and we still talk day to day, so I made great friends.” Velasco speaks highly of the students who take part in SPS noting that students there help one another, create funds for projects and establish an awarding environment based on their achievements. “Having a completely student-led organization where students worked on projects has just given such a unique experience of everyone working with camaraderie, but also how to solve a problem and not just immediately go to your advisor or your faculty,” said Velasco.

While acknowledging his initial uncertainty about being at ODU, Velasco is grateful for his experiences. “As I grew here I realized ODU definitely cares about wanting students to grow.” He explains “a bad grade or just one bad test cannot define me or you, so get back up and move on, and that is the best thing ODU has taught me here.” Velasco took advantage of ODU’s plethora of different resources such as the writing center and math and chemistry tutoring centers through the Science Tutoring Centers.

Velasco plans to attend graduate school back at ODU in the fall of 2024 to obtain his master’s degree in physics.