BOA Member Partners with SEA for Aviation Day

by Dr. Elisabetta Zengaro
Communications Specialist, Division of Community Affairs

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – It looked like a scene out of “Top Gun” with Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” playing in the background as STEM Entrepreneurship Academy (SEA) students donned their aviator sunglasses and posed for pictures outside the hangar of Sanders Aviation and Sanders Flight Training Center in Jasper, Alabama, during a special aviation day of camp on Wednesday, July 12.

Held annually during July, SEA is a one-week residential camp that provides rising high school juniors and seniors from across Alabama with opportunities to improve their knowledge and application of STEM while developing their entrepreneurship skills during hands-on workshops and hearing from experts in the field at The University of Alabama.

New this year was an aviation day partnership made possible in part by UA alumna Jessica Sanders Walker. Walker is the vice president of Sanders Aviation and Sanders Flight Training Center, and founder of the nonprofit, Operation Aviation Foundation (OAF), which encourages youth to seek education and career pathways in aviation.  

While visiting campus this past spring, Walker reconnected with Dr. Samory Pruitt, vice president for Community Affairs, who invited her to join the Community Affairs Board of Advisors (BOA). As a BOA member, she participated in the 2023 New Faculty Community Engagement Tour that resulted in a partnership with Andrea Ziegler, director of Community Education, and Jake Peterson, assistant director of Community Education. As part of the partnership, 2023 SEA students were invited to participate in an aviation day during OAF’s first summer camp.

During the camp, SEA students heard from industry professionals, including Tim Crumbly, NASA technical fellow for software assurance, and Kathy Byars, Center Executive Officer at Marshall Space Flight Center. Campers were also debriefed on the science of flying and participated in a flight simulator. As a woman in STEM, Walker is passionate about making STEM careers accessible to youth in underrepresented areas.

“As soon as Kathy Byars from NASA stopped talking, I saw all these young girls from [STEM Entrepreneurship] Academy run up to her, and they were just elated speaking to her,” said Walker. “That really warmed my heart because I remember what it felt like to be a young woman on campus at The University of Alabama, and there weren’t that many women doing things in a lot of STEM positions and aviation positions as there are now, so it is always so exciting to get to see someone like Kathy Byars in the role that she’s in and all the women who presented today.”

The motto of the BOA is coming back, giving back, which inspires Walker to expand aviation outreach within her community.

“The Division of Community Affairs has just been incredible,” Walker said. “I would like to thank the staff from Community Affairs and Dr. Kathleen Cramer, who has constantly steered me back to the University. I am forever grateful to Dr. [Samory] Pruitt, and The University of Alabama because it is about coming back, giving back.”