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To the Moon and Back

By Shawn Fury

Though Cornelia Jerresand has always felt at home in a pool — as a champion youth swimmer in Sweden and throughout a standout freshman campaign on Seton Hall’s women’s swim team — when it comes to her future, she sets her sights upward, far above Earth.

“I decided when I was pretty young that I wanted to be an astronaut and that was a dream job,” Jerresand says. “I’ve worked towards it.”

Those aren’t merely the words of a young kid who watched movies about space exploration and had stars in her eyes; Jerresand gears her classes and pursuits around the lofty goal.

“She’s very ambitious and has a passion for becoming an astronaut, which I love,” says Carissa Leoni, Seton Hall’s assistant director of academic support services for student-athletes. “We always joke anytime I’m on a video call with her — typically, she has a NASA shirt or something with astronomy [around her], and that’s a very clear passion. She said it since Day One. … I always find that international students, for whatever reason, have an uncanny drive to learn, and she definitely has that.”

Jerresand’s family nurtured her love for swimming and her obsession with space. With two older sisters who both swam, “I practically grew up in a swimming hall where my club team is,” she says. As a physics major who will also pursue a minor in applied scientific math, she credits her electrical engineer mom with inspiring her to always go “toward technical and scientific stuff.” Jerresand watched one of her mother’s university professors — an astronaut — go into space as a kid, and both her mother and sisters read books about the cosmos to her.

Exploring faraway places is also nothing new. Jerresand’s desire to prolong a successful swimming career led her to explore universities in the United States, following a path taken by a friend from Sweden, which does not offer the equivalent of NCAA swimming. She researched schools remotely, using videos and Google Images, loving Seton Hall’s location and size, which she feels allows for more personalized attention. “When I came my freshman year, that was actually my first time ever in the U.S. It was a big step, but I’m really happy I did it.”

As Jerresand adjusted to Seton Hall and American life, she experienced some culture shock but ultimately flourished, both in the classroom and the pool, where in her first meet as a collegiate swimmer, she had victories in the 50 and 100 freestyle and the 200-medley relay against Rider University. At the BIG EAST Championships, she notched personal-best times in
the 50, 100 and 200 free.

Then COVID-19 hit. Jerresand returned home and spent much of the spring and summer with family, grateful that Sweden’s pools remained open and appreciative of her Seton Hall professors’ flexibility, considering the time difference she faced attending classes online. And though the pandemic has upended her sophomore campaign, the BIG EAST announced it will hold conference championships in April.

Through it all, Leoni says, Jerresand achieves “amazing grades in her classes and still dedicates so much time to swimming. She is an ideal vision of what a student-athlete is and can be.”

Jerresand’s vision for her future remains clear. She plans to pursue advanced degrees in engineering and is considering service in the Swedish military in order to become a pilot, “because I noticed it’s easier for people who are pilots to become astronauts.” She is on the lookout for opportunities to achieve her goal: one of her chemistry professors’ contacts could lead to a NASA connection. The European Space Agency looms as a possibility for technical internships and summer jobs, and a private outfit like SpaceX could be a future destination.

Shawn Fury is an author in New York City.

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