Erica Cornelison ’23: Human Factors Grad is on a ‘Space’ Mission

Fully Online Human Factors Student Discovers Her Dream Career


It took Erica Cornelison ’23 some time to find a career path that resonated with her. Originally from Southern California, she attended community college without finding a specific passion. Although she enjoyed humanities and sciences, particularly organic chemistry, she struggled to merge her interests into a cohesive career focus.

When Cornelison, a pad safety supervisor at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, picked up her regalia last December, she was almost overcome with emotion to have reached this point in her life. She knew she was smart, but she was also a little indecisive the first time she went to college twenty years ago.

“I just couldn’t commit to a major,” Cornelison says. “It finally got to the point where I knew I had to get a ‘real’ job instead of waiting tables and hanging out in the clubs every weekend.”

She had spent some time in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps in high school but hadn’t considered the military as an option … until a favorite uncle told her that if she joined the military, she could move away from Southern California, and find someplace new to love, or she could always come back home.


woman in USAF uniform
Erica Cornelison spent nearly 16 years in the United States Air Force.

Cornelison decided to join the U.S. Air Force, where she served for 16 years. She was in air-launched cruise missiles – at the beginning of her career; she also trained in ICBMs – intercontinental ballistic missiles – and for the precursor to what is now known as the Space Force, working surveillance for national security space launches at Cape Canaveral SFS.

Still, she never lost sight of her desire to get her degree.

“The Air Force has always had a big push to get your college degree,” Cornelison says. “But again, I just couldn’t commit to anything specific until I learned about Human Factors.”

There were other factors going on in Cornelison’s life that inspired her to go back to school. She was getting ready to separate from the Air Force; her son, Seth, was getting older, and she was also going through the breakup of her marriage.

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Cornelison’s last duty station was at Cape Canaveral, and she easily transitioned into a contractor job for the Space Force. She had kept in contact with old coworkers, and they let her know that they had a position open in pad safety, an area with which Cornelison was familiar.

woman in regalia and her son
Erica Cornelison and her son, Seth, navigated through her UCF education together.

“Launch is a very small community, and you can make a lot of connections,” Cornelison says. And she was able to transition into the new position easily; at the same time, she was researching what she would need to do to get into the Human Factors program. She had already earned an associate of science degree, but she still needed to take about three more classes to fulfill the requirements for her associate of arts degree, which was a prerequisite.

Launching Her UCF Education

When she was thinking about going back to school, Cornelison recalled reading an article about someone at NASA who had studied Human Factors Psychology, an integrative approach that focuses on the interaction between humans and the environment (systems, products, people, and procedures).

UCF Professor Receives National Award for Work in Human Factors

Once Cornelison learned that the woman had studied human factors psychology, it sent her down a Google rabbit hole. She was already intuitively learning about the intersection of technology and human cognition and human ability; this curriculum would enhance her knowledge and improve her skillset.

Human factors psychology utilizes psychological principles to optimize the design of products and cultivate work environments that enhance productivity and mitigate safety concerns. Its primary focus lies in optimizing systems rather than delving into individual or psychological issues. Originating during World War II, the field emerged from a recognition of the necessity to enhance the efficiency and safety of manned systems.

“Part of my job was working on something called Mission Assurance,” Cornelison says. “It involved getting feedback from people on what could go wrong with government missions; there are a lot of launches happening all the time, and launching government satellites is very expensive and very risky.”

There is nuance involved in these critical conversations, Cornelison says. In talking with the technicians and contractors as they shared their reports, Cornelison says she often had to read between the lines to ascertain if there were risks involved that were, perhaps, not being made clear.

And as the space program grew, Cornelison knew that she wanted to learn more about the best way to present the technical information that she received from the engineers, contractors, and scientists.

“Instead of using the ‘rosy’ picture of what’s going on, I dig deeper to know how or if an issue is going to affect the ability to launch successfully,” Cornelison says. “It’s a lot of responsibility. In my current job, you must be able to communicate details that are urgent, but to also not be dramatic. It’s a fine line.”

3…2…1 Begin Human Factors Program

She chose the fully online option for her degree mostly because of her erratic work schedule.

“Launches happen at any time,” Cornelison says. “We don’t work 9-5 all the time, sometimes we’re working at 9 p.m., sometimes I’m there at 3 a.m. I needed a school schedule that would allow me to work when I needed to work.”

Cornelison also need to glean information from her curriculum that would be both interesting and beneficial to the important work she was doing for the space industry. She found it through the human factors program with case studies that included the Three Mile Island and Challenger disasters, and the prevalence of medical malpractice. Each of those case studies included causes that included not only design deficiencies or component failures, but also human error.

In the case of Three Mile Island, for example, Cornelison learned that had the knobs and dials on the control panels “made sense,” the disaster would have been avoidable.

“You can’t just design things without thinking about systems and about how people are going to look at the systems and interpret the systems,” Cornelison says. “And this is something that the field of human factors psychology encompasses – along with so much more.”

Even though she loved the curriculum and focusing on getting her degree, Cornelison also admits that it was difficult to balance being a mom, going to school, and having a fulltime job. She can’t say enough about her online success coach that she found through UCF’s Online Connect Center.

“It almost felt like therapy,” Cornelison laughs. “I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to pay for this, and I could talk to my success coach about everything that was going on in my life that might be affecting my performance.”

When Cornelison started the human factors program,  she was still going through her divorce, and the launch pace at the Cape had picked up extended and erratic hours.

“I want to shout out Monique Carter, my online success coach,” Cornelison says. “My life felt like it was a mess, and I was unsure that I could continue. She told me, ‘It’s OK. You’re doing it, and you will get through it.’ She was amazing, and I really credit her with my not giving up.”

Carter also connected Cornelison to a peer advisor who helped her navigate which courses to take, and she also overcame her initial fear about emailing the professors directly regarding any questions she had. Not that they were scary, she laughs, but in her mind, they were the equivalent of a four-star general.

“I soon realized that even though I was ‘only’ an online student, my professors and their teaching assistants took the same amount of interest in my success, and that really helped in my online experience.”

What also helped was knowing that she was going through the online program knowing that she would be able to provide a better life for herself and her son.

“We have a great relationship, but there were times when I felt like I wasn’t being a fully present mom,” Cornelison says. I would talk to my son, and even though launch days were crazy, we would have a few days to decompress after, and that’s when I would completely focus on quality time with my son. He’s a smart kid, he knows I was doing the best that I could, but together, we kept our eyes focused on the prize.”

Cornelison says if anyone is considering a degree in human factors psychology, there is likely an industry in which they could utilize that degree.

“I have found that human factors psychology doesn’t fit into one box,” she says. “You can make it work for designing cell phones, for creating lesson plans for any industry training program, or for creating a safety program. Figure out what industry you want to work in and then kind of work back from there on how you can apply that human factors skill set to bring something new to the table.”

The “occupational hazard” of getting a degree in human factors is a real thing, Cornelison laughs. “I met a UX designer from Johns Hopkins who takes pictures of doors that are badly designed. When I’m out in the ‘wild,’ I will see checkout lines that could be improved. You start noticing everyday issues that could be improved with just a little more understanding of human factors.”

When Cornelison picked up her graduation regalia last December, she was overcome with emotion. It was her first time on campus, not counting the three times she participated in the You Can Finish 5-miler.

“It was emotional for me,” Cornelison says, “Because for a long time I had to be so laser-focused, and at that moment, I think my body just finally gave up. I didn’t have to take any more classes, I didn’t have to study anymore. I would have more freedom. It was an almost impossible thing to finish, and I felt every emotion all at once.”

Cornelison’s son was pleased, too, but for a slightly different reason.

“At some point in time, Seth started asking me for a new puppy,” Cornelison says. “Like, on an almost daily basis. I kept telling him that we had to wait until I graduated and had a slightly less hectic schedule.”

When Cornelison attended UCF’s graduation ceremony for military veterans at VARC, she created a picture that was displayed when she crossed the stage: the slide read, “Seth, I love you, but stop asking me for a puppy.”

The week after graduation, Cornelison, Seth, and previous rescue Xena welcomed Brutus to their family.

As Cornelison reflects on her time at UCF, and how far she has come from her uncertain days in Southern California, she is remiss to offer advice to any incoming student.

“I’m just a regular person trying to get by,” Cornelison says. “But I think everybody has a story to share, and if there’s another single mom out there that’s struggling and is doubting herself and her ability to get through school … I would tell her that it’s probably going to be difficult at first, but if you’re really passionate about it, you’ll figure it out. If someone offers you help, take the help. Just be open to new adventures and new possibilities. You can do it.”

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