When San Antonio native Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr. went to space as a NASA astronaut, he learned quickly that he didn’t need to try too hard to move around the space station.

“My first mission, I learned when I push off, I don’t use my whole hand because that’s too much force,” Harris told a group of ninth graders in East San Antonio on Monday. “All I needed was a finger. Then I could stop myself and float wherever [I needed to go].”

Harris, who became the first African American to do a spacewalk in 1995, shared more stories about training for space and living in zero gravity with 32 ninth graders who are part of the Cyber P-TECH program at Sam Houston High School, his alma mater. Ninety-one students are in the P-TECH program, which gives students an opportunity to graduate not only with a high school diploma, but also with a cybersecurity associate’s degree from St. Philip’s College. The new program welcomed its first class of students this year.

Harris graduated from Sam Houston in 1974 and visited P-TECH students on Monday on the behest of Sylvan Learning Center, which hosted him at an awards ceremony earlier that day, where three San Antonio elementary students won a robotics competition with their light-up shin guards. Steven Jones, who owns Sylvan with his wife Tammy, said he thought Harris would be a perfect speaker for other students in San Antonio – especially for those at his alma mater.

“We wanted to give these students an opportunity to hear from him, and I think it was special for him,” Jones said. 

Harris’s success and San Antonio roots gave him a unique connection to the students and served as an important example for them, P-Tech Principal Delinda Castro said. 

“You always hear about the negative things in Sam Houston as opposed to a positive story,” Castro said. “They need to be exposed to more [positive stories]. I know there are more stories out there; we need to cultivate that and expose kids to more stories, of being successful [after] graduating and knowing this neighborhood.”

In addition to his work at NASA, Harris earned his medical degree from Texas Tech University, a masters in medical science from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, a masters in business administration from the University of Houston, and trained as a flight surgeon at Brooks Air Force Base. Harris also previously worked as the CEO and managing partner of a venture capital firm that invested in health care technologies and companies. He currently serves as CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, which aims to advance STEM education.

While in space he could move with just the push of a finger, Harris said most of his endeavors required much more effort, determination, and hard work, noting that he often was the only African American in the room.

“In medical school, I was the only African American in my class,” he said. “When I went to astronaut school, I was the only one in my class.”

But Harris views himself as a person with no limits, he said, and he kept working toward what he wanted to do. And everyone else should too, he added.

“There’s something special you’re supposed to do,” he said. “And you have to figure out what that is. The folks around the room can help you, assist you, enable you. But the choices come from you. No matter what people might say about you, what counts is you.”

Rebecca Espinoza was one of the students who heard Harris speak on Monday. She was impressed by his accomplishments in fields where he was one of the few people of color.

“It motivates me more,” she said of his advice. “He didn’t care what other people thought of him. That’s pretty cool – he had confidence.”

Harris last visited the school in 2010, when he spoke with Sam Houston High School students. He was also honored with a Leadership Award in 2014 by the SAISD Foundation. After taking a group photo with the students on Monday, he lingered for a little while longer, chatting with students and answering questions.

“We are infinite beings, with infinite possibilities,” Harris told the group. “That’s what you are. You can do anything you want in life.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.