Approved for public release, 21-183
Who knows what is on a person's horizon? What's important is to chart a course that explores all the possibilities that lie in one's future.
Karen Kropornicki thought she was destined to fly for Delta Air Lines, and some day she still might.
But instead, she has found herself employed in public service -- with a federal agency that only the rarest of Americans have heard of -- the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). What is it?
Operating under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Defense, the NGA is relied upon by anyone who sails a U.S. ship, flies a U.S. aircraft, makes national policy decisions, fights a war in the name of America, interprets global intelligence, locates target, or responds to national disasters. In other words, it is focused on human activity and what is happening on "this planet Earth." Need more background? Its forerunner -- under another name -- first identified the Soviet Union's cache of missiles in Cuba in 1962, sparking a crisis that almost led to a nuclear catastrophe.
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The NGA employs 14,500 people at more than 120 locations in the United States and around the world. Kropornicki, a 2011 graduate of the WMU College of Aviation with degrees in aviation flight science and aviation management and operations (with a business minor), is based in the fabled English city of London.
"I was lucky to get a job with NGA as an aeronautical analyst shortly after graduation," Karen says. "Like most people, I had never heard of NGA until I attended the Women in Aviation International's annual conference in 2012 in Dallas. I handed over my resume, had an interview during the conference, and started work a few months later."
Throughout her flight training at Western, Karen says she never gave charts and "approach plates a second guess and never considered what goes into making them. While the NGA's primary focus is data for military aviators, many of our products look similar to the FAA charts and approach plates I used during my WMU training. The NGA opened my eyes to other career paths in aviation. All of what a pilot needs has to come from somewhere."
Karen is assigned to the No. 1 Aeronautical Information Documents Unit within the Royal Air Force. "Living in a foreign country and working with our United Kingdom counterparts has been an amazing experience," she says.
She's well-conditioned to survive and flourish in ever-changing environments. As a "military brat" born in Alaska, she followed her family to assignments in Washington, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oregon, Michigan and Missouri. "Home" is Pendleton, Ore., located in the extreme northeast part of the state near the Washington border. That's where she graduated from high school in 2007 and where her parents live.
Excellence in program offerings and best-of-the-bunch aviation facilities may not be the prime -- or the only -- factors that constitute the "why" of a higher-education choice. Family often plays a role, as it did with the future NGA staffer.
The Pacific Northwest isn't known for collegiate-level aviation programs so Karen concluded that she would be going out of state for her next level of education. The private Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with prime operations in Florida and Arizona was the leader in the clubhouse until a nighttime internet search led to what was available at a university located in a place called Kalamazoo. She said she had started to fill out an Embry-Riddle application, but never finished it.
"My mind quickly began to change and WMU became my first choice," she says. "Western offered cheaper tuition, state-of-the-art Cirrus aircraft with glass cockpits and parachutes, and -- more importantly -- a well-rounded education that offered the full college experience with academics and sports outside of the aviation bubble."
But there was something more that sealed the sale. "Both my parents are from the Detroit area," Karen says, "and I still have family there. A support network a few hours from Kalamazoo was also a driving force."
But why aviation? Why not marketing, nursing, education, or speech pathology?
"With all the places I have lived," Karen explains, "flying commercially was always a big part of my life and I always wanted a window seat. What hooked me was flying as an unaccompanied minor to visit family. I flew Delta most of the time and was always treated like a piece of gold. Once I decided that aviation was my future, my only goal was to fly for Delta so I could return the amazing customer service that was shown to me."
Now solidly entrenched with an established career in NGA, it wouldn't reflect too well on the quality of her education at WMU if she gave that all up. But Delta is still part of her essence. "My adjusted goal is -- whether I fly its planes or clean the toilets -- I will work for Delta one day. Maybe with a part-time job in retirement. In the meantime, everybody who knows me even a little bit regards me as a walking billboard for what I consider the greatest airline."
Karen is also a "walking billboard" for the value of extra-curricular activities and the power they bestow on a resume. During her days at Western, she was involved with Women in Aviation and Alpha Eta Rho, the professional collegiate fraternity for students who share an interest in the aviation industry. The twin results are life-long friendships and networking connections.
"The fact they are both larger organizations outside of WMU," she says, "is a big bonus. It's always an instant conversation-starter and connection-builder with friends and colleagues at NGA. Some got their jobs through the Women in Aviation gatherings. We probably crossed paths and attended the same breakout sessions and didn't even know it."
There was another bonus -- the maturation and personal development of Karen Kropornicki, who admits that in high school and early in her WMU career, she was something of a wallflower. "I was very introverted and didn't talk to many people. My involvement with the student organizations cured me of that and built the solid foundation I stand on today."
That growing confidence allowed her to be convinced to run for vice president of the Women in Aviation chapter. Prior to that, she was "happy being quiet in the back of the room and I never pictured myself in a leadership position. I won. It was a great experience and I am forever grateful for being pushed to do that." Karen served as the chapter president in her senior year.
The "new" Karen Kropornicki also evolved into the gold standard when it comes to being a student ambassador for the College of Aviation because of her work ethic, passion and commitment to the mission. She served in that capacity until "Diploma Day" when she left for the NGA.
"The team I worked with was great," she recalls. "We had lots of fun representing the university and the aviation program giving tours for prospective students, at college fairs, and other events. The skills I gained doing that have helped me ever since, especially when it comes to public speaking."
Living in the "aviation dorm" -- Henry Hall at the time -- ranks among her favorite memories of college because it helped ease the adjustment to a new phase in life. "We all had the same classes and were involved in the same organizations," she says. Passing grades and perpetual friendships resulted.
Her time in the sky shares "favorite" status. "During my commercial multi-engine training," Karen says, "I went on a cross-country with my instructor to Milwaukee in the Seminole. When we got back to Battle Creek, I traded keys for a Cirrus and went on a solo flight over southwest Michigan." All in one day.
Then there is College of Aviation Dean Dave Powell, who, prior to his Western days, flew as a captain for United Airlines. "Even though we didn't agree on which airline is the best," Karen says, "he runs the college with the real world in mind to prepare students for successful careers. The fact that he roams the halls and knows students by name made the college feel like a big family."
Because of the job stability she enjoys while many of her industry friends are impacted by the Covid plague, Karen has been fortunate enough to pay off her student loans. Instead of saying "free at last, free at last, thank God in heaven I'm free at last," and pocketing some extra change, she made a donation to the College of Aviation scholarship fund.
"The scholarship I received at Western helped a lot because of being an out-of-state student," she says. "I wanted to do my part to give back and invest in the future, especially during these uncertain times. The top-notch flight instruction, academics, student organizations and everything else at WMU prepared me to have a successful career. Even though I'm not doing what I originally intended to, the fact that I am using my degree and working in the aviation industry is all because of WMU."
Now that's called paying it back -- and paying it forward -- at the same time.
The views expressed in this story don’t necessarily represent the views of the US Government, DoD, or NGA. Approved for public release, 21-183.