Don’t underestimate the power of mentorship

Woman smiles as she leans up against airplane inside hangarIn 1991, exactly two months after graduating from Michigan State University, I walked into my first airport board meeting. One of the commissioners, who was easily old enough to be my grandfather, said to me “I have socks that are older than you”. In 1993, I met an airport manager who said she could still see the water behind my ears—obviously implying that I was very young and VERY new to the job.

Because of my age and gender, I felt I needed to win them over somehow. I was pretty sure I would be able to assist them with their planning issues because, as a licensed pilot myself, and a newly graduated urban planner, I understood what a pilot and a planner were looking for in an airport facility. I had been flying since 1985 and had seen a couple of dozen airports across the state of Michigan. I was confident that this knowledge would serve me well, but how could I convince them of that? In the end, the fact that I was able to say I was a private pilot was what got me in the door.

I, unfortunately, had to navigate those early years by myself—there were virtually no other women doing what I was doing at that time. Not only was I young, but I was also a female in a predominately male environment. There was nobody I could reach out to as a mentor or watch as a role model who could help me navigate this new territory.

For those first few years, whenever I attended an industry conference or airport meeting, I was usually the only woman in the room—or at least one of very few. I knew I had to prove myself as very capable; after all, I was starting out with two strikes against my credibility from the get-go.  Over time I learned to leverage my passion for aviation as my equalizer, and I was able to succeed.

Man and woman stand in front of airplane with snow capped mountains in the backgroundEarly support is critical

My passion for aviation started as a spark, which grew from many hours spent sitting in a tiny terminal building at Arnold Field – a small turf runway airport, listening to my flight instructor and the many other pilots who hung out there swapping stories and knowledge—and maybe a tall tale or two.

Flash forward 29 years and I’ve seen a lot more than a dozen airports in Michigan. I am no longer the only woman in the room. I now work coast to coast and my clients range from small airports to state aviation agencies, and even national organizations like the FAA and the Airport Cooperative Research Program. I am still using that private pilot knowledge as a key cornerstone of what I do daily.

My passion for aviation hasn’t dimmed from those early days. But things have definitely changed. Now, I don’t have to lead client introductions with the fact I’m a licensed pilot; I can draw on my vast amount of on-the-job experience making airports important elements of their local communities. I never could have acquired this experience if I hadn’t been afforded those early opportunities to stretch my wings and pursue my passion.

When I look back on my early interaction with those pilots so long ago, I am struck by the vital nature of mentorship, inclusion, and support. Those pilots could have sent me home after my flight training was done for the day so they could enjoy their time with the “older set,” but they didn’t. They welcomed me in and engulfed me in their tales, their knowledge, and their passion. The chance to provide the same support to those who will one day fill our shoes is both a privilege and a responsibility—one we should not take lightly.

I try to pass along my passion every day. Whether it is sharing my knowledge and love for aviation with those I work with or through participating in various industry groups, I am always hoping I can engage those that I interact with and help them find their passion, even if it isn’t in aviation.  Either way, I’m trying to ensure that they are exposed to the options before them and encourage them to pursue their dreams.

Where we’re going

It’s exciting for me to see the growing numbers of women in aviation across all professions, from pilots to engineers to airport managers. This increase mirrors the interest and enthusiasm for aviation I’ve seen from the next generation. I’ve been a panelist at several Women’s Aviation Career Symposiums hosted by the Great Lakes Chapter of Women in Aviation. Seeing that first spark of interest in the faces of students I’ve spoken to as part of the Western Michigan University Chapter of the AAAE provides a unique sense of fulfillment. I feel I am coming full circle, giving back and helping others as I was helped.

Of course, I couldn’t accomplish all this without the support and patience of my husband and two children. They know that these mentoring activities sometimes take me away from family dinners or make for some late nights, but they understand that giving back gives me purpose. I’ve tried hard over the years to balance my professional and personal life, and as we all know, it can get difficult at times. Adding one more responsibility to our already full plates can be daunting. But I challenge each of us to make an effort, no matter how small, to look for those opportunities for mentorship.

No matter what our gender or profession, providing mentorship and support to those who will fill our shoes in the coming years and decades is crucial. It doesn’t have to be a lot; it could be just a phone call with somebody interested in your industry. Maybe it’s a job shadow or a presentation to a high school or college class about what you do. It could be planned participation in other mentoring events. The important thing is just to make those connections. That kid you’re talking to might be “younger than your socks”, but a simple conversation could mean more to them than you know—it could even give them boost they need to chase their dreams.

Stephanie Ward, AICP

About the Author

As an aviation planner and pilot, Stephanie Ward brings unique understanding to her projects, big and small. She is passionate about working with communities and airport sponsors to keep airports viable. When she isn’t traveling for work, she enjoys using her frequent flyer miles to explore the U.S.

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