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Pilot Shaesta Waiz

Science Like A Girl: Pilot Shaesta Waiz

As a pilot, Shaesta Waiz knows the power of looking at something from a new perspective. It would be pretty easy to look at her accomplishments – from completing an around-the-world solo flight to founding an international non-profit that introduces girls to STEM – and think of her as exceptional. But Shaesta prefers to look at things another way. She knows all the steps that went into her journey from a refugee camp in Afghanistan to a career as a pilot, and she firmly believes that she is no different than any of the girls who get inspired by seeing her in a flight suit. When those girls look at her, they don’t necessarily see the first female civilian pilot from Afghanistan or the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe solo in a single-engine aircraft; they just see someone who is like them.

Image Credit : Shaesta Waiz

Shaesta and her family came to the United States as refugees in the late 1980s. Shaesta was a young child at the time, so she grew up with a personal identity split between cultures. In her America, it felt perfectly normal to be from another country. Her family was learning what it meant to be American, while also doing their best to preserve the culture their journey had forced them to leave behind. Shaesta’s mother wanted to keep her daughters connected to their cultural roots, but she also made sure to expose them to documentaries about girls like them who did not have access to the same education or safety they now had. Shaesta remembers watching these stories about girls who looked just like her but had lived so differently from her own.

But Shaesta will be the first to admit that she did not appreciate her education as much as she could have. Her school district lacked resources and teachers often came and went throughout the school year. She knew that finishing school was important, but that was all she and her peers concentrated on: finishing. Many of them came from cultures where women traditionally married young, and even Shaesta thought her future would only consist of marrying young and having a large family. She and her peers enjoyed school, but they thought that life startedafter high school.

Then Shaesta’s family moved 30 minutes away to a new school district. Suddenly her peers weren’t talking about marriage; they were talking about college applications. She found herself in the embarrassing position of having to ask what the word scholarship meant. The transition was jarring. But rather than concentrating on her own discomfort, Shaesta focused on her younger sisters. She started having them read together and give book reports at home. Shaesta devoted herself to becoming a student of the American higher education system. She never wanted her sisters to have to ask a friend what an SAT was. 

Image Credit : Shaesta Waiz

One side effect of Shaesta’s new focus was that her own grades improved as well. By the time she graduated, her family was so proud that they bought her plane ticket to visit family in Florida. Quite ironically, Shaesta was afraid of flying. But rather than the terrifying experience she had expected, Shaesta’s flight was a series of epiphanies. To her, the takeoff was as graceful and intricate as a ballet. The view of her city pulled away to nothing beneath her and suddenly any name on the map seemed as accessible as her own neighborhood. She knew she wanted to see as many of them as she could. When she landed, her family asked where she wanted to go first. The beach? Disneyland? Shaesta responded, “I want to stay at the airport and find out what it takes to become a pilot.”

Image Credit : Shaesta Waiz

SOMETIMES YOUR BIGGEST FEARS IN LIFE CAN BE YOUR GREATEST INSPIRATION

Even with her improved grades, it took two years of community college classes to bring her academic record up enough to get into Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. When she looked for female role models to inspire her, Shaesta was dismayed to find that only 4% of airline pilots and 6% of the pilots in the world were women. And almost none of them looked like her. But none of that mattered once she was in the cockpit. “It didn’t matter who I was or where I was from. If I moved the yoke, I moved the plane. I was controlling this big, powerful machine,”

Shaesta said. “All that mattered were my skills as a pilot.” She said the experience gave her confidence in other aspects of her life. Shaesta could have settled into her career, but she remembered those study sessions with her sisters. She wanted to do what she had done for them for as many girls as she could. She formed the nonprofit organization Dreams Soar, Inc. and planned a solo trip around the world. With sponsors behind her, she visited 22 countries and inspired over 3,000 kids through STEM outreach events along the route.

The more she saw – and the more she remembered the documentaries her mom had shared with her in childhood – the less Shaesta started feeling like the end of the flight would be “mission accomplished.” Inspired by the girls she met, Shaesta shifted her focus from inspiration to education. Dreams Soar plans to provide scholarships and dreams of someday building an all-girls STEM school in Afghanistan. Shaesta said, “Sometimes your biggest fears in life can be your greatest inspiration.” She wants girls around the world to know that they shouldn’t be intimidated.

Image Credit : Shaesta Waiz

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Read More about Shaesta’s journey here.

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Author

  • Amanda is a scholarly publishing professional and science writer. Whether writing articles for interested kids or helping researchers publish their latest books, she has a passion for communicating the latest discoveries to curious readers from college campuses to K-12 classrooms. Her academic and professional careers have pursued a commitment to lifelong learning across the academic spectrum – including a Ph.D. from Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science and undergraduate majors in geology, psychology, and German at Bucknell University. She loves writing for SMORE, because every issue is a chance to tell someone else's story – from physicists to podcasters, public health experts to programmers – and introduce the readers of Smore to who they are and what they do.

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