OU Aviation Students Inspire Women to Pursue Careers in STEM


OU Aviation Students Inspire Women to Pursue Careers in STEM

It’s almost impossible not to take a few seconds to look up at the sky when an airplane passes overhead. For many, a wistful feeling follows a simple thought—It must be amazing to fly.

The Sooner Chapter of Women in Aviation International (OUWAI) wants girls to know that the idea of being a pilot or having a career in aviation can be more than just a dream or a passing thought. It can become a reality.

“Wherever your interests lie, there is a job in aviation for you,” said OUWAI President Charnell Walls. “You don’t have to be a pilot, but we want girls to know that they can be, and we will be here to support you on that journey!”

Many people rely on seeing those who look like them doing something amazing in order to be inspired to dream of something more—and to believe that those dreams are achievable. OUWAI’s missions is to show girls that their dreams of a career in aviation are within reach by creating a space for them to come together to share their experiences and champion female aviation initiatives.

“OUWAI wants to be walking and living examples for girls who want to fly planes, be flight attendants or engineers, or direct air traffic,” Walls said. “Being a pilot is one of the ways you can change the economic status of your family in one generation.”

The group put their words into action this fall by contacting state and local leaders and encouraging them to help spread the word about the great opportunities girls and women can find in aviation careers. Their efforts resulted in multiple proclamations recognizing Oct. 13 officially as Girls in Aviation Day.

OUWAI received proclamations from the office of Governor Mary Fallin and the mayors of Norman, Moore, Oklahoma City, Midwest City and Del City. OU President Jim Gallogly congratulated the group for their commitment to educating girls about opportunities in aviation and encouraging them to explore careers as pilots, air traffic controllers, airport managers, engineers and more.

“Being a pilot is one of the ways you can change the economic status of your family in one generation.”

“Girls in Aviation Day is just one of the creative ways we use to approach closing the gap in the future needs of aviation,” Walls said. “We keep our momentum going by continuing to reach out to other women’s organizations and to girls in our community. We want our focus to be on aviation because of the enormous financial impact aviation has on our economy.”

According to Walls, the aviation and aerospace industries contribute approximately $44 billion in annual economic activity in Oklahoma and account for over 5 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Due to mandatory pilot retirement and an insufficient pipeline of new pilots, by 2020, there will be a shortage 35,000 of pilots in the U.S. alone. 

“It is OUWAI’s goal to do our part to help close that gap with qualified women,” Walls said. “Right now, only 17 percent of jobs in aviation are held by women, and for pilots that number drops to 6 percent.  

“We want OUWAI to be a place of support and encouragement for women with aviation interests. Women are met with a myriad of unique challenges—some of which may complicate their journey. We want young women to see that even with these natural occurrences, they can succeed and lead.”

It is this kind of passion and effort that is not only inspiring girls to dream in new ways, it’s also exciting the camaraderie and sense of mission among the women currently enrolled in OU’s School of Aviation Studies. Since August 2018, OUWAI has seen its membership more than triple thanks to the efforts of its officers and members, and Walls sees no reason they won’t continue to grow.

"We want our local girls to see that there are exciting careers available to them as engineers, astronauts, pilots, dispatchers, air traffic controllers, and dozens of other jobs within the aviation community."

“We plan to partner with the Society of Women Engineers, and other on campus organizations, to have a joint impact, voice and face on campus,” she said. “We will also be speaking at the Cleveland County Civil Air Patrol cadet meeting in February 2019, and plan on attending Jr. High and High School campus STEM events to get girls interested in aviation.”

As part of this effort, members of OUWAI took 75 backpacks they had prepared to give to girls during OU’s annual aviation festival, which was cancelled due to rain, and instead loaded them with candy and gave them out during OU’s Homecoming Parade on Oct. 27. Each backpack included a Girls in Aviation Day magazine, a Girls in Aviation Day patch, a plastic propeller and a VFR chart, a navigational reference used by pilots.

“It was a pleasure to surprise the kids with them,” Walls said. “We want our local girls to see that there are exciting careers available to them as engineers, astronauts, pilots, dispatchers, air traffic controllers, and dozens of other jobs within the aviation community. Getting started early is key. Flight lessons toward a license can begin as early as age 15. We also have the OU Sooner Flight Academy, which can get the ball rolling as early as age 8. They teach the basics of flight and aerodynamics and expose children to aviation in a way that is fun and interactive.”

OUWAI will host their final meeting of 2018 on Tuesday, Nov. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Max Westheimer Airport Terminal Building in Upstairs Training Room 205. The event is open to all majors, as well as men who want to lend their support to promoting the growth of women in aviation.

To learn more about OUWAI, visit the Sooner Chapter Facebook page or contact them via email at ouwai@groups.ou.edu. To take the next step toward a career in aviation, visit the OU School of Aviation Studies website.

OU logo

Myk Mahaffey

Michael Mahaffey holds degrees in journalism and psychology. He is a writer and editor with more than a decade of experience writing for print and digital publications, including award-winning coverage of the rodeo industry. In his spare time, he writes fiction, in addition to tinkering with graphic design and photography.