“I came into college with very few expectations, and my experience has been anything but normal.”
Air Traffic Management senior Briana Daugherty has experienced a lot during her time as a student at the University of Oklahoma. It has been a period of change that brought her some of the highest highs and lowest lows in her life. During an undergraduate career bookended by a cancer diagnosis and a global pandemic, she discovered not only who she wants to be, both professionally and personally, but also found a community of friends and colleagues across campus who have brought her some of her greatest joys.
It may not have been a typical experience, but it is one she has learned from and enjoyed in equal measure.
“I feel like everything I’ve done has added more to my experience and my knowledge as a person and a good citizen,” she said. “I have found more grace and understanding in the world than people say there is going to be, and it’s given me a lot of hope.”
Building a Community
Born in California, Daugherty’s family moved to Tulsa when she was 5. As the only child of divorced parents who lived just 10 minutes from each other, her life was very family-oriented, with lots of time spent with her grandparents and cousins.
“Tulsa is a big city, but it feels very small,” she said. “It’s easy to get around. I enjoyed growing up there, and I made some really good friends.”
As a child, she played every sport that was available, from soccer to volleyball to basketball, including competing in discus and shot put in high school. She joined choir and performed in musicals, and even performed as the school mascot. In joining student council, Daugherty also found a sense of belonging and a passion for leadership.
“I saw leadership as a way to make everyone feel like someone, to feel included,” she said. “I got to make the environment where everyone felt like they had a place.”
Finding a Path
As the daughter of a pilot, it would have been easy to assume that Daugherty would naturally fall into a career in the aviation industry, but it was a path she didn’t consider until she was already in college.
“My mom has been a pilot for United Airlines for over 30 years now,” Daugherty said. “She flies a really big plane, the Boeing 777. It was always cool to be like ‘My mom’s in London this week, or Beijing or Hawaii.’ I didn’t really have an interest in doing that, but it was cool to say, ‘My mom is a pilot.’”
It wasn’t until the summer after graduating from high school, when she had an opportunity to take flying lessons in a Cessna, that she first took an interest in flying.
“I think what really hooked me was seeing my city, Tulsa, from the air. It was awesome. We were flying over Jenks and Bixby and Tulsa and checking out downtown, and these streets that I’ve known my whole life. It was so cool and such a unique experience, and I just loved the different perspective and the freedom that it offered. And I had a knack for it. It just got put on the backburner until I got out of college.”
Daugherty started her college career as a mechanical engineering major, but she quickly learned that it wasn’t the right choice for her. Classes with 200 students and the lack of opportunity for professors to take an interest in individual students was difficult for her to manage after attending a high school where she literally knew everyone.
“It was quite a culture shock,” she said. “I knew right away it wasn’t a good fit. I just didn’t know what to do next, so during the winter break of my freshman year, I asked my mom what she thought.”
“I looked at the degree program, and I looked at the job, and thought the spatial concept of separating the aircraft was really interesting,” she said. “I like all of the rules. I find it to be very guiding, but there’s also a creativity to it. I changed my major that spring, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it ever since.”
The smaller class sizes in her aviation courses immediately appealed to Daugherty.
“My aviation classes were at most 30 people, and it was so much better. In my air traffic management classes, there were 8 or 10 of us, and I thought it was amazing. I got that special attention that I really like because it motivates me. Seeing a professor and knowing that they know your name, and you can email them about anything, or they know that you’re coming from a good place when you ask them a ‘stupid’ question. I really enjoyed that, which really helped to cement what I wanted to do in the future.”
Her flight experiences the summer prior made her feel at home from the moment she took her first aviation course.
“I’d already had a bit of background in flight training, so I knew 70 to 80% of the terms we were talking about,” she said. “It was really cool cross-training from my pilot experience. I felt well informed and in the know.”
Daugherty was so excited about her courses that she would call her mom after classes to talk about the things she had learned that day. It’s something she has continued to do more than three years later.
“I would say ‘Listen to what I learned today,’ so class goes on for another hour,” she said. “It was really fun to share that with her and to also get some insider knowledge. I just don’t step away and leave everything in the classroom. I get to talk about it and let it soak in when I’m at home. I’ve found that to be super helpful.”
Just as helpful were the experiences she had growing up as the daughter of a pilot who was involved in groups like Women in Aviation and the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, among others.
“We would go to all of the conventions, and I’ve gotten to meet all of these women pilots,” Daugherty said. “It was super cool because it showed me there were no limits on what I could do. I didn’t know it at the time, but the representation was super important. I feel a lot of pride in what she’s done and what she’s given to me. It’s almost superhuman.
“She let me find aviation on my own. It just happens to be something I really like and something that as a freshman I thought could be a career that I’d be interested in having for the rest of my life.”
As the early stages of her academic and professional life were beginning to come into focus, her personal life was rocked when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma stage 3A during spring break of her freshman year.
“I went through chemo for six months,” she said. “I stayed in school and finished out the spring semester. I returned to school in the fall, even though I was still doing treatments. I just found a lot of grace through the aviation community that they still wanted me there and would do anything to help me graduate and get my education and make sure that it was good. They gave me a lot of understanding and grace to do so.”
After having to take an incomplete in a core air traffic management class due to her diagnosis, Daugherty’s professors and advisors helped her to plan her schedule in a way that allowed her to graduate on time.
“I am forever grateful for that,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of goodness in people, and that there is sometimes flexibility when it doesn’t seem like there would be any. I found that during my time of need, the aviation community stepped up and helped me through one of the hardest times in my life that I’ve been through so far.”
That sense of community extended through her involvement in aviation organizations such as OU’s chapter of Women in Aviation and the Sooner Air Traffic Control Association (SATCA), to her involvement in main campus groups like President’s Leadership Class, Speaker’s Bureau and OU Dance Marathon.
“My favorite part of these extracurricular activities is you’re meeting people from all across campus,” Daugherty said. “I’m getting all of the different perspectives of life. I like to meet new people all the time.”
During her junior year, Daugherty was Family Relations Vice Chair for OU Dance Marathon, a year-long service project that saw the group raise more than $1 million for the Children’s Hospital Foundation.
“It was amazing to be in that leadership room and getting to flex that muscle of being able to pour into people again,” she said. “I got to be with the families that we were helping a lot. I want these families to have the absolute best care, because I know how important it was for my family to help me with that. To see all the effort we put in result in a million dollars, you just cry. It was pure happiness.”
The Skies are Wide Open
While riding high on the success of Dance Marathon last spring, Daugherty had no idea how little opportunity there would be to enjoy the community she had built during her senior year with the rise of COVID-19.
“It didn’t feel real for a long time,” she said of the now more than year-long pandemic. “It felt like another thing to add to the resume of things that happened to me in college that I was just going to get through no matter what. But you can’t power through a pandemic. You have to have patience and resilience.”
The importance of taking advantage of every opportunity that comes your way in life is a mantra that Daugherty now lives by, and one she encourages her friends to follow.
“We get so many unique experiences,” she said. “Say yes to every meeting and event and study group and hang at the library and late nights at Waffle House. Say yes to everything because you will not regret it. Those are the things that I miss the most that COVID-19 took away. Say yes to everything while you can. Those yes moments are what make life awesome.”
Daugherty plans to seize her own new opportunity this summer by continuing to train as a pilot.
“This has been a plan since I started in air traffic management,” she said. “I always saw it as an option. I would have a degree from a CTI school, and I could become a controller if I wanted to be, but I always kind of wanted to be a pilot. I liked seeing the other side of the radar, to know what they know. With all of the hiring currently slowed down because of COVID-19, I get this perfect little moment of time after I graduate to explore the other side.
“I’m excited to go hard and learn further about flying and spend that time and energy. My mom calls it my master’s degree!”
With no lingering health effects following remission of her cancer, Daugherty is cleared to follow any path she chooses as an aviation professional. And whether she decides to become a pilot or an air traffic controller, she plans to lean into the leadership and mentoring opportunities that come her way to bring more women and young people into aviation.
“It’s a career that’s given me everything I’ve had in my life through my mom, and now a career and lifestyle that’s going to be my own,” she said. “I think it’s amazing getting to share that with young people. Even re-inspiring my peers to go for new opportunities or find that new thing. I see my career as a job that I will find a way to make my own.”
For more information about the OU Air Traffic Management program or the School of Aviation Studies, visit pacs.ou.edu/aviation. To learn more about educational opportunities for working adults, visit pacs.ou.edu.