BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - A Baton Rouge woman has won a $50,000 collegiate scholarship from Dr. Pepper to pursue her dream job of being a commercial aviation pilot.
Kirsten Smith, a 2020 graduate of what is now Liberty High School, was named a finalist for Dr. Pepper’s Tuition Giveaway program after she submitted a video entry explaining how the scholarship would help her fulfill her career goal of becoming a commercial airline pilot.
“Along my journey, I couldn’t help but notice there are not very many people like me,” Smith said in the video. “It was a little discouraging at first, however, with the help of my family and mentors I know my destination can become a reality.”
Smith described herself as a ‘unicorn’ in the submission video because she is pursuing a career in aviation as a female African American. She says women make up only 5% of pilots in commercial aviation and of those female pilots even less are African American.
Dr. Pepper, which is granting $2 million in tuition during the 2020-201 college football season, told Smith she was a finalist and would compete in a game-show style game on Dude Perfect’s YouTube Channel on Dec. 7.
Smith competed against a fellow finalist from Texas A&M in a game of “Small Games, Big Prizes” in which the contestants had to guess if an object was real or actually a cake.
She did not realize it before the game began, but she would win a $50,000 scholarship for participating.
“It was a nice surprise,” she said.
Smith made it into round three of the game but the other finalist guessed correctly before she could. That student won a $100,000 scholarship from Dr. Pepper.
She discovered she wanted to be a pilot when her uncle, who flies for a hobby, took her up in his single-engine airplane one summer when she was a freshman in high school.
Smith says she actually had a fear of heights but after 30 minutes in the air, she overcame that fear and was determined to pursue a career in aviation.
“I really just like being in the clouds, the feeling I get from flying and just the freedom you get up there is something you don’t get anywhere else,” she says.
She says after seeing her uncle pilot an airplane she “dove headfirst” into learning about aviation got her private pilot’s license at the age of 17.
Now, with half of her freshman year at Louisiana Tech in the books, she wants to work for a commercial or cargo airline like FedEx.
“I just want to fly, so it doesn’t really matter with who or where,” she says.
Even though she still has up to three more years left in Louisiana Tech’s aviation program, she says winning the scholarship has eased some of the stress of college.
“Being awarded this scholarship has helped me not worry so much about the cost of flight training. And it’s [helped] to just focus on school and focus and doing why I enjoy and not have to worry about how am I going to do what I enjoy doing,” Smith says. “The Dr. Pepper Tuition giveaway has helped me because it alleviates the financial burden. Being an aviation major is very expensive because on top of tuition you have flight fees and different things associated with flying.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to the commercial airline and travel industries, fortunately, it has not hindered her from pursuing her dreams.
“It hasn’t really impacted me too much personally in achieving my goals. It just hinders a lot of conferences and connections in the field that I don’t have the opportunity to do because you can’t be around a big group of people,” she says.
However, Smith says the pandemic has caused her to have a level of concern about the profession she is pursuing.
“It does worry me because we went from having a projected pilot shortage to pilots being furloughed,” she says. “You’ll always have a back plan in the aviation industry because there’s always something you can do but it may not be exactly what you want to do. So it’s kind of a rocky road going forward because if something like this does happen in the future when I’m flying you just have to deal with it.”
Although she says African American women pilots are rare, she has never felt any opposition from the aviation community.
“Race has never really been a problem for me. I do have people [outside of the aviation community] that look at me as a little less because I am an African American female, but I really try to turn negativity into something positive. I use it as motivation to just continue and keep going,” she says. “Here at [Louisiana] Tech, I have no problems with being an African American female pilot, and I’m probably one of the few that we have if we any others one. But it’s not a problem. The aviation community is very welcoming regardless of who you are or where you come from, and that’s one of the big things that I actually love about it. I’ve always felt welcomed,” she says.
However, she says there are people outside of the program who seemed to be surprised that she is pursuing a career as a pilot.
“It’s kind of frustrating sometimes because people do you look at you like ‘oh you fly airplanes?’ And it’s like ‘yeah I fly airplanes’ and ‘oh it’s that for such and such’ but in reality, it’s for whoever wants do it,” Smith says.
“It’s just to get myself out there, to be that role model for anybody. Even if it’s not aviation-related, just to be a role model that says ‘do what makes you happy,’” she explains.
She says she wants others to have the courage to pursue their passions with the same enthusiasm as she does.
“Always do what you want to do, regardless of who’s behind or who’s done it before you. If it’s something you want to do, dive head-first into it because it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, which was just diving headfirst into the unknown, not knowing what was possible or what would come from it. The worst thing you can do is not like it, but at least you can say ‘hey at least I tried it,” Smith says. “Try to be different, even though they may not have people that look like you doing what you want to do, just do it. You can start something new and be that person for other people that look like them.”
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