First Year Fun and Medallion Scholarship Success: Makenzie Russell Ascends at WMU Aviation

WMU Aviation Flight Science Student Makenzie Russell
Posted by Tom Thinnes on

WMU Aviation Student Makenzie Russel paragliding on her 16th birthday!

If more athletes were like Makenzie Russell, the slur of "dumb jock" would disappear from the American lexicon. 

A freshman at the WMU College of Aviation, she is an avid hockey player and was awarded Western's prestigious Medallion Scholarship for her academic prowess. Not only was she the captain of her women’s club team from 7th grade until her high school sophomore year (when she advanced to a higher female division), she also joined the men’s hockey team at Homewood-Flossmoor High School south of Chicago during that same time. 

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Russell and her WMU roommate, Caroline, supporting the Broncos at the first football game of the season

How reputable is Western's comprehensive aviation program?  Russell says she applied to more than 10 of the best in the nation, was accepted by all of them, and cast her lot with the Kalamazoo-based campus as a major in aviation flight science

Russell is the classic example of the power of "first impressions."  What "sold" her?  The "friendly staff and students, state-of-the-art facilities such as the flight simulators, and career-pathway programs with major airlines," she says.  "It was just the right fit for me.  From the moment I stepped on campus, it felt like home.  I had an amazing tour guide when I visited the program's beautiful airport headquarters in Battle Creek.  That solidified my decision."  Also impressive was the program's fleet of Cirrus SR20s (with the newest version soon on its way to Western's operations). 

Russell was scripted to pursue a pilot's career as a youngster.  "My grandfather is an airline mechanic and introduced me to planes -- and what makes them tick -- at an early age.  Seeing the planes up close sparked my interest.  I knew I wanted to fly them one day.  I also loved the idea of traveling as a job because I enjoy exploring unfamiliar places and adventure."  She took "a discovery flight" before applying to schools to make certain she was on the right career path. 

The first day of college, Russell and friends from the Aviation House heading to their Intro to Aviation class after breakfast

What she did at Homewood-Flossmoor High prior to her graduation in the spring of 2023 put her on the path to a Medallion Scholarship, one of the largest merit-based stipends in the nation.  Up to 20 are awarded each academic year and, over a typical collegiate career, is valued at $90,000.  She took AP (Advanced Placement) courses in statistics, biology, and engineering, and IB (International Baccalaureate) classes in physics and math. 

No doubt that impressed the Medallion selectors.  But so did her community-service "chops."  "I was heavily involved in the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District as a lifeguard, swim instructor and an after-school program for elementary-aged children," Russell says.  She did all of that when not babysitting for families who call the village of nearly 20,000 folks home, or when not refereeing youth hockey games at the local rink. 

And speaking of hockey!  "I played hockey from age 6 through my senior year of high school," she says.  "I started with the local recreational team and then moved to a AA girls' team in middle school."  As mentioned above, not only did she captain her club team during her tenure, she also "double-rostered on a AAA women's team in Milwaukee and the men's varsity" at her high school.   As a senior, she played varsity field hockey "to expand my horizons and challenge myself with something new." 

Playing varsity field hockey during her senior year of high school

Equally as impressed with Russell's credentials was the Chicago Blackhawks Alumni Association that chose her to receive one of its three scholarships for 2023.  It is presented to senior hockey players in high school who demonstrate academic excellence, community service, volunteerism, character, and leadership.  She's been able to build connections with former players on one of the original six National Hockey League teams. 

As a first-year student at Western, Russell is attempting to replicate what made her successful in her high school years -- activity.  Built into her campus schedule as a Medallion recipient is her inclusion in WMU's Lee Honors College.  She's engaged in intramural sports, joined the WMU chapter of Women in Aviation International, and lifeguards at the University Recreation Center.  She attended Bronco Bash to kick off her college career, took part in an introduction-to-aviation event, and sampled the new Student Center's grand opening.  Weather willing, the Illinois native enjoyed some Lake Michigan beach time at South Haven.  The year 2023 saw her attending concerts by Kid Cudi, Darius Rucker, and her "all-time favorite," Bruce Springsteen. 

Russell and her family at her junior prom, and sister Nataleigh's senior prom. From left to right: Mom (Jenifer), Russell, Nataleigh, Kaeleigh (sister), and Dad (Brian)

Want some more?  "I am currently working hand-in-hand with other Medallion recipients to create a new Registered Student Organization in which I will be the director of promotion and student engagement," she says.  "We want to get more students involved in solving the issue of climate change by directing zero-waste sporting events." 

Russell is also formulating a coalition of comrades in arms.  "One of my favorite experiences is going to breakfast each morning with my friends in the Aviation Living and Learning Community," she says.  "What a great decision to be with people with whom I will be working hand-in-hand for four years.  Every morning at 8:30 we get together.  It is a highlight of most days to have a meal with close friends before a difficult-but-enjoyable class such as professor John Davis' applied calculus course.  It gives us time to relax, talk about the day's plans, and enjoy our friendship."  Proof that a hit single tune in the 1960s still rings true: "Little Things Mean a Lot." 

Russel and her Mom at the Bruce Springsteen concert at Wrigley Field in July, 2023

Although she's still early in her academic environment, Russell has already sampled the quality of Western's aviation program -- the Introduction to Powerplants lecture-and-lab course co-taught by assistant professor Kevin High and Jacob Zoch, the simulator and information technology technician.  In a "very fun" way, they guide students in taking apart engines and "how each function contributes to make the plane fly."  Good things to know if, like Russell, you want to be a commercial airline pilot. 

"There is so much to do on campus," Russell says about the intramural-sports opportunities, the myriad of extra-curricular activities and, especially important to her, "a great hockey team to cheer on."  Certainly, the scholarships she earned because of her academic diligence "will be extremely beneficial in my studies and in working toward my goal to become an airline pilot."   

But there is something above and beyond that at Western.  "I am so happy with my choice," Russell says.  "I would recommend that anyone interested in aviation to come check it out."