To The Class of 2021

It’s graduation season again, when students receive their degrees and move into the next phase of life. To the Class of 2021, we celebrate your achievements. Congratulations! We applaud your hard work and perseverance to reach this significant milestone. In honor of this momentous occasion, I would like to share a brief graduation message. And for those experienced professional members of AIAA, I’ve got a related message for you as well.

A Year Like No Other

For students at all levels, learning during the past year has not been ideal. From moving to virtual classrooms, to losing familiar connections with your friends, to getting creative on completing group projects, the 2020–2021 academic year has been tough. There also have been fewer opportunities for fulfilling hands-on internship experiences. I have heard students’ concerns that their resume upon graduation may not be viewed as stellar without the robust internships of the past.

You should acknowledge this year has been tough. I also believe you should use the resilience you’ve developed as fuel, propelling you toward your future.

Moving Ahead

While we have seen significant job losses this year, the aerospace and defense (A&D) sector is beginning its recovery. Each week, the U.S. government is awarding contracts to industry for major projects, commercial companies are continuing to sign customers, and universities are continuing to receive research grants. These organizations will need more qualified employees, so be encouraged – you are now qualified to enter the A&D workforce.

My Advice: Know When To Pivot

You are probably receiving a lot of advice right about now. Please allow me to add mine: Be open to different options than what you planned. The challenges brought by the pandemic make this mindset even more relevant. You may not find the role you want right away in today’s recovering job market. If so, it may be time for you to pivot.

Perhaps pursuing a graduate degree is an option for you. Perhaps pursuing a role in an adjacent industry is an option for you, especially if you don’t currently have a security clearance. You have options.

You have learned the fundamentals if you hold an engineering or science degree now. The fundamentals will help you contribute in many areas, in many roles. They also give you the foundation to build upon if you continue your education to the next level.

I learned about pivoting during my time at NC State University. I earned a bachelor’s degree there in Aerospace Engineering in 1988, then a master’s degree in 1990, and a doctorate in 1993. My focus during graduate school was the reemergent area of hypersonics, a field whose jobs were drying up by the time I finished in 1993. With the Cold War ending, employment in the A&D industry dropped off dramatically. I realized my dream job at NASA was not going to materialize. My future felt very uncertain. Yet, as a result of my studies, my undergraduate and graduate internships with NASA, and my experience writing technical papers for AIAA, I remained committed to learning the fundamentals and focusing on my future. I was fortunate to get a postdoctoral research position at Sandia National Laboratories and have been there ever since. Initially I worked in very different areas from my graduate training, but that foundation in the fundamentals contributed to my success. In the end, hypersonics made a comeback!

Your story will have its own path. Choosing a different option than the one you thought was your logical next step keeps you moving forward, which is the best direction to be going.

AIAA Is Here For You

We’ve all learned the value of connecting with others this year. You have a wealth of resources through your AIAA membership – mentors, classes, forums, books, and more. Moving to a Young Professional Membership will be a great step along your AIAA journey from classroom to career. I encourage you to connect with your local section to benefit from your AIAA support system.

One of the best decisions I ever made was joining an AIAA technical committee. At the urging of a mentor, David Throckmorton, I joined the Thermophysics Technical Committee. That step has led to my long affiliation with AIAA, volunteering in leadership roles, and now serving as its president. I did not realize then how important that decision was. I want to urge you to make a similar decision and stay involved with AIAA.

A Message For AIAA Professional Members

We have the opportunity to inspire the next generation to pursue a career in aerospace. We can do that through personal connections – like mentoring – and through personal contributions – like donating to the AIAA Foundation. Please join me in supporting the AIAA Foundation as it celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Also join me in connecting directly with students in areas that align with your own passion.

Carry On

To the graduates – this pandemic academic year is a speed bump in your life. It may have slowed you down, but it didn’t stop you. You will be stronger in the end having tackled the challenges you faced. Your resilience from this experience will serve you well as you make choices that move your career forward. Embrace the possibilities! ★

To The Class of 2021