Rising Up with Riley Trygstad – Taking to the Skies and Piloting Her Path

WMU Aviation Flight Science Student Riley Trygstad
Posted by Tom Thinnes on

Riley Trygstad enjoying a summer evening on Mona Lake, Michigan

Riley Trygstad had never thought of herself as a pathfinding pioneer, but her aspirations now are to be one. 

"Considering that aviation for the most part is male-dominated," says the sophomore aviation-flight-science major at the WMU College of Aviation, "being a woman and being gay has been something I have factored into my experience.  It's been hard so far, considering in most of my classes I'm one of only three females and possibly the only one in the LGBT community. 

Request College of Aviation Information!

"It's not easy for me to make friends with my classmates as it is for the men," she says.  "But my goal in my time at WMU is hopefully to show women and people in the LGBT community that this is a viable and attainable career path.  I want to pave the way as much as I can, and create a more welcoming environment for anyone who considers a career in aviation." 

That career choice for Trygstad never came into focus until her senior year at Mona Shores High School where she earned her diploma in the spring of 2021.  She grew up in the Muskegon area, a community about halfway up the Lake Michigan shoreline in the state's Lower Peninsula and almost directly across "The Big Lake" from Milwaukee. 

Trygstad and her family (twin brother Jake; her Dad, Don; Trygstad holding George; and her Mom, Randi) outside Alpha Chi Omega sorority house.

"In high school," she says, "a requirement to graduate was to take a career test.  You list your qualities as a person -- likes to work outside, to work with people, likes hands-on work -- and you list what you are looking for in a job, such as pay, work environment, opportunities for growth.  My No. 1 result was 'pilot.'  I had never considered that career option.  No one in my family has had an aviation-related career." 

Trygstad followed up on those results.  Research led her to news articles about pilots being in high demand.  When she mentioned all of this to her parents, they logged a "discovery" flight at the Muskegon airport for her "and the rest is history."  WMU's highly rated aviation program eventually came into focus, complemented by the fact that the campus was only about a 90-minute drive from home. 

But at first, there was a slight detour for Trygstad because her initial choice was Michigan State in East Lansing, which resulted in a fairly quick transfer to Western.  "I have enjoyed going to a smaller school," she says.  "I get a sense that the faculty care about students on a more individual level.  All my Western instructors make an effort to know me personally." 

She says that at Michigan State she "went through an entire semester without talking to any of my professors.  The lectures were also much bigger, making it harder to get help if you needed it.  In that regard, going to WMU has been so much easier." 

Helping to make it easier are instructors such as Bill Feenstra, the college's director of information technology -- especially the aircraft-systems lab he teaches.  "I loved that class," she says, "because I got to see all of the plane's different parts in a hands-on way.  I could tell that Mr. Feenstra really cares about his students and the subject he teaches.    When I was confused, he always helped me and he made me feel comfortable asking for help. 

Trygstad and friends enjoying a beautiful Michigan summer day on Mona Lake (Left to right: Matt, Ellie, Taylor, Li, April, and Trygstad)

"As a woman who had no prior knowledge of aviation," she says, "or any mechanics, for that matter, he didn't make me feel less for not knowing the basic parts of the plane or anything else.  I hope I can take another class from him." 

Sorority sisters: Sami, Trygstad, and Brooke

Trygstad has gotten the same good vibrations from a psychology class she took at Western.  "I think it relates well to aviation," she says.  "Being a masculine woman who is gay, I know I'm coming into a male-dominated industry.  Understanding psychology gives me the tools to work in that type of environment.  I believe I will be able to deal with any kind of situation with compassion." 

A member of Western's Alpha Chi Omega sorority, she serves on two of its boards -- one that seeks to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive environment for the organization and the second that strives to uphold the sorority's standards.  She sees the connection as providing opportunities to become more involved in campus activities, hone leadership skills, and experience the fund-rasing aspects of philanthropy.  Alpha Chi's target is to build awareness of domestic violence. 

When not involved in all-things aviation, Trygstad lives the outdoor-oriented ways pointed out in her career-aptitude test.  She plays tennis, shoots baskets in the driveway, golfs with Dad, hikes trails with the family dogs, and polishes her newly acquired water-skiing skills on nearby Mona Lake. 

As she continues to add to her aviation experience and knowledge, Trygstad says she "just wants to become the best pilot I can possibly be.  My dream job in aviation would be flying celebrities on their private jets.  That would be so cool." 

And not that far out of the realm of reality.  There have been numerous WMU College of Aviation alumnus that have captained a celebrity or sports star.