A few weeks ago I had the privilege to attend the AOPA High School Symposium held in Louisville, Kentucky. I accompanied a group of ardent educators to the event and while I am not an educator, I am a passionate storyteller and my interest piqued when I discovered the symposium would be helpful in my new hometown stomping grounds. 

The event had been meticulously planned and organized quite well with guest speakers and break out sessions to focus on specialties within the STEM curriculum. I found an even mix of men and women all eager to exchange ideas and learn from curriculum that was already working. As an educator I am certain it was a haven of information for the teachers in attendance. While the love for aviation outreach has been deeply rooted in my life, it was the story that had always won my heart. The small details that are the clichés that ring true.  The end of my first grade year in elementary school had me asking my teacher for extra curriculum over the summer to teach with. My nerd meter was essentially pegged, as curriculum is something I get excited about. While it was the outreach that certainly got me through the door to this event, it was the story that captured my heart. 

As I made my way through the crowd I found my friend had saved a seat for me. Within a few minutes I would be moved and changed by someone’s story I had never heard. A woman, who regrettably, I did not know much about until that day. While I was familiar with SpaceX and their many feats I couldn’t say that I knew any more about it than the headlines that I would skim over.  As she walked out on stage, the first thing that came into my mind was that she was fabulous, and she hadn’t even spoken a word at that point. She was a strong, confident woman, whose smile was infectious and her energy lit up the entire room, enter Gwynne Shotwell into my life.  She began to speak and what I found fascinating is that I didn’t feel lost. Maybe it’s because she sounded like me. Granted, I am not an engineer, at all, but she spoke with simplistic words that were almost poetic. That language, I DO understand. She spoke of how her mother took her to an engineering conference when she was a teenager and how that was the first time she was really taken and called to her career field. She said it was through seeing other women she identified with on stage, seeing these strong women, in sharp suits and really great shoes. Now, the audience chuckled a bit at the comment as it was something so trivial, but the irony in something that simple as someone that seemed familiar was the HUGE piece. Shoes. That’s it! For me, as a professional airline pilot I saw Gwynne and it was relief. Here was a mom, here was a woman who was feminine (it’s ok ladies to say that, and it’s ok for me to relate to that) and she was talking about rockets. When she spoke, she made a point to make her love for her field bigger than what we perceive to be a field only a select few can do. 

She went on to speak of failure and the unspeakable amount of it that her team went through. “You don’t learn anything from success, but you learn a lot from your failures.” I sat in my chair and those words really began to sink in. My life has been a mountain of failures, and in ways that has been my mountain to climb, my Everest. One could see the obstacles of divorce, an abusive marriage, failed checkrides, or parenting mistakes as failures, but the reality is I did not let those keep me down. As I came out of my daze I could hear Gwynne mention she didn’t finish her Doctorate and chuckled “I know I’m a failure.” And I laughed, with tears. This woman on stage is brilliant, and beautiful the furthest from what I thought a failure was.  So what really is a failure? A failure really isn’t more than an opportunity.  An opportunity for more perspectives and for growth.

It’s very easy to see STEM fields (really we need to change it to STEAM), and see the desire to have more diversity. The fields themselves are fascinating. Look no further than a local science museum and what you will find is people, fascinated. The change and dynamic often comes from, “Do you have an educational pathway to get there in your community? “Do you have people who support you”, but the third, which I believe is the most crucial is “Do you know that you can achieve that goal?” If we start with the last question first, the others somehow fall into place. If you believe in yourself, and believe you are called for that goal, you will seek out people who support you, and either find a pathway to get there or blaze a trail for yourself and those yet to come. Some of my most inspirational people in my life, the leaders, did not want me to learn how they lead, they wanted me to learn that I can lead my life. To navigate through it, and to trust that passion over what anyone is telling me.

What I walked away from at this symposium was that the infrastructure is there and spreading minute by minute by people passionate about these fields. We need to show more shoes. We all wear very different ones. Different backgrounds, different drive, different situations on how we all got to where we are and where will are going.  It’s not just one personality type that fits as an airline dispatcher, air traffic controller, mechanic, or engineer. We can all look different and have different strengths within the field and together be stronger.

For me, it’s seeing other moms being nurturing and providers, both passionate about what they do that I draw strength from. It may be different for you, your shoes may be seeing someone with a similarity you have or you see yourself in their story.

Whatever it is, let’s go shoe shopping. 

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