I spent last week with 40 minority students who will be high school juniors and seniors in the coming academic year. I had applied for a grant to lead a workshop that would introduce these students to college life and careers in aviation. Later I received word that I had been selected and was awarded $50,000. It didn’t take long to spend the money…
Back in February we started by advertising the program, called In-Flight! to high schools in the state of Tennessee. Students had to write essays and get a recommendation letter from their math and science teachers. We selected 40 students from among the many applications that came in. I am the Aerospace Department chairman at Middle Tennessee State University. MTSU has a large professional pilot program and on June 1, 2003, we flew many of our 28 airplanes across the state of Tennessee to pick up the students at their hometown airport and fly them back to our campus. We picked up all but one.
Asani Bello just finished the 10th grade at Antioch High School in Nashville, Tennessee. He applied for the In-Flight! program and was accepted. We sent Asani, and all the other students, information about how, when and where they would be picked up in a small airplane. That’s when I got my first email from Asani’s mother. Although he had signed up for a program called In-Flight!, Asani Bello was afraid to fly. He knew that the 39 other high school students were all going to fly in small airplanes to the weeklong program, but nevertheless he had his mother drive him to Murfreesboro. His mother also wanted to know when to pick him up at the end of the week. I wrote back, “The program ends on Saturday, June 7 — but maybe by Saturday he will want to fly home!”
During the week the students lived in the dorm, and ate in the cafeteria. They had a tight schedule of activities to follow and had to get themselves up in the morning, and to the right place everyday. They stayed up half the night — every night; they were true college students for a week. During the week they made and launched their own rockets, read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, made an aviation time-line, and selected and conducted research of role models from aviation history. They had guest speakers, including an astronomer and the University President and academic deans.
At mid-week I got another email from Asani’s mother. She wrote,
“I hope everything is going well with my son. He was a little shy the day I brought him there because he didn’t know anyone. Make sure he calls me by Friday or anytime to let me know if I need to come get him.“
I wrote back,
“He was not the only shy one — since they were all strangers at first — but believe me they all became fast friends! We are having a great time. We will have him call you on Friday, Paul.“
The next day Asani’s group was due at the airport. One of the activities each student would participate in was air navigation. Each student was given an Atlanta Sectional chart and about an hour’s ground school on chart symbols and cross-country planning. Then, in groups of three, they all took off on three-legged cross-country flights, with a flight instructor. Each student got one leg in the pilot’s (left) seat. We all watched to see if Asani would join his group at the airplane. He did, and he flew!
On Friday Asani called his mother and told her that she did not need to drive to Murfreesboro to pick him up, but that she should pick him up at their local airport instead. On Saturday the airplanes carrying the students home took off in every direction, and Asani was aboard one of those airplanes.
On Monday, I got another email from Asani’s mother:
“I can’t begin to thank you and your staff for the miracle I saw when I saw Asani fly back in that small airplane. I laugh every time I think about it. Never would I have imagined. For the first time he admitted that Mom was right about sending him to In-Flight! Please tell all involved I’m giving them a big THANK YOU!“
If you haven’t yet noticed, airplanes can be a powerful positive force in the lives of young people. Only time will tell if any of the students from the program will go on to college, and /or become pilots, but I know — whatever their course in life — they won’t forget the time they spent laughing, studying, talking, reading, working and flying together.
Thanks for reading this first in a three-part series. Next week we learn from the Innovators, the Dreamers, the Risk-Takers, and Jasmine’s poem.