Mentoring the next generation of leaders, innovators, and engineers is critical to the success of the aerospace and aviation industry. Girl Day is a global campaign designed to introduce a girl to engineering and demonstrate how these engineering careers can change our world. During these events, girls can see the paths that the previous generation of women have paved before them—one that might lead all the way to space.

Unlike previous years, this year’s event took place virtually, yet organizations like Collins Aerospace still produced interactive “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” events around the country, in partnerships with local schools.

One featured speaker to support this initiative was Joan Higginbotham, retired NASA astronaut and Director of Human Exploration Primes at Collins Aerospace. Higginbotham found her love of engineering early on and once said she was “born an engineer.” Her passion for engineering led to her being one of three African American women in history to go to space, logging 308 hours while she operated the Space Station Remote Manipulator System.

Higginbotham highlighted three pieces of advice for those who are going to embark on a STEM-related career. The first was to “believe in yourself.” She said that there were going to be plenty of challenges, obstacles along the way, and if you believe in yourself, it will help you face those obstacles. The second was “working hard,” noting that the curriculum for the STEM field is challenging but worth it. The last piece of advice she gave was to focus on “perseverance.” Higginbotham shared that she only was selected as an astronaut by NASA after her second time applying. When she applied her first time, she only made it to the interview round. But she went back, with more education under her belt, and applied a second time. Had she not tried again and persevered, she would never have been selected as one of the 15 crew members for the mission.

Yet not everyone who enters the field of engineering knows where it will take them. During a Collins Aerospace panel with the Information Management Systems team in Annapolis, MD, a group of five women engineers came together to discuss their career paths. Many of the panelists didn’t take a straight path into an engineering role. 

Christina Hayden, a Senior Process Engineer at Collins Aerospace, found her interests were in art and music. She explained to an audience of middle school girls that she followed her passion for music and art by exploring audio technology and website design. She pursued a degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she was able to combine her interests. “You don’t need to know exactly what you want to do right away,” Christina explained. “Just keep on learning and as long as you are following a path that you’ve designed, you’ll get there.”

Jaya Aswani, Product Manager, Platform and Data Services, joined Collins Aerospace nearly 13 years ago as a software developer for radio communications. During her career with the company, Aswani explained that she had the flexibility to move around to different divisions and to work on new challenges. “Engineering offered an environment where I could build flight decks and cockpits for government and commercial aircraft, and then move over to the business side, where I’m now creating a digital marketplace for the aviation community.”

Suzanne Cullens, Technical Project Manager at Collins Aerospace, also participated in the Girl Day event and presented her career path. She agreed that engineering enabled flexibility. Cullens has been at the company since 1987 and during her career, explored various engineering roles. From an analyst to a programmer, to a systems engineer, Cullens now acts as a liaison between the engineering and the project management teams. She discussed how technology is always evolving and never repetitive, which makes it a very exciting career field to explore. “There are lots of opportunities out there and you just have to decide what you like to do.”

Participants around the country were exposed to women who have created their own paths in the field of engineering and technology. By interacting with the women who came before them, this younger generation now has the opportunity to create their own paths and explore new and innovative roles in shaping the future of the aerospace and aviation industry.

About Shany Seawright

A senior executive at Strategic Communications Group and Managing Editor of Connected Aviation Today, as well as other publications, Seawright oversees the editorial direction of the publication and managed the editorial staff.