KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Aisha Thaj has always been fascinated with flight. Growing up she devoured the "Maximum Ride" book series featuring characters born with wings. She would let her mind wander looking out the window on long flights to see her grandparents in India, fantasizing what it might be like to dive into that literary world. It's probably why she's formed such a connection with her family's pet bird—a sun conure named Mr. Mango you'd find flying free around her parents' home in Portage, Michigan, most days.
"Animals are so intelligent, so clever, so uniquely themselves. Small birds have giant personalities; every day I'm learning something new with him or about him," says Thaj, who is now also preparing to spread her own wings and watch her career take flight.
A member of the first graduating class of Western Michigan University's product design program, Thaj landed a job dreaming up designs for future aircraft at Bell, an international aerospace company headquartered in Dallas, Texas.
"To have an opportunity like this, I'm beyond grateful," says Thaj, who was offered positions in three different divisions within the Bell portfolio after impressing the CEO during an internship in the summer of 2020.
"He asked me how do you see design coming into play at Bell and our vision for what the company could be in the future," she recalls. "So I told him what I had learned (through the product design program at Western's Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation), my skill set in design thinking and expanding the possibilities for what engineers currently are making, how we go through iterations of ideation and brainstorming techniques."
That conversation led to a meeting with the company's vice president of innovation, a marathon 24-hour project and ultimately an opportunity to join his team full time after graduation.
"I'm excited to build on the momentum I started last summer, to learn new things and build my skills as a fledgling designer out in the real world," Thaj says.
Finding Her Path
As a high school student, product design was not even on Thaj's radar. She'd always enjoyed art but saw it more as a hobby and an escape from her rigorous science and math classes. When she earned the prestigious Medallion Scholarship at Western—one of the largest merit-based scholarship programs in American higher education—she enrolled in the University intent on pursuing an engineering degree.
"I definitely knew I wanted to help people; I just didn't know how exactly I would best be able to utilize my skills," says Thaj, who initially decided to pursue a degree in chemical engineering. "I was always someone that was super involved in the community; I was always volunteering."
While she enjoyed research, she struggled to find her passion in the theoretical sciences.
"I really tried my best for two years, and it was just me banging my head against a wall, trying my hardest to push my weaknesses instead of celebrating my strengths," she recounts. Toward the end of her sophomore year, she decided to explore other options. A friend recommended a new product design program the University was launching, which would incorporate her engineering experience with her interest in art and design. Suddenly, a spark ignited.
She racked up internships and experiences at innovative companies like Tekna, learning the ropes from industry leaders in product design in addition to getting instruction and feedback from corporate partners who visited classes.
Thaj also earned an innovation fellowship in 2019 at Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design alongside outstanding design students from around the world. The program aims to empower students to become agents of change and use their skills to make an impact on the economy of the future.
"Part of me is super interested in the social change industry of design. There's also a big part of me that's really interested in the future of design and technology," Thaj says. "I love the idea that we can change as much of the world as we can get our hands on."
The skills she's built through the Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation put her in a position to make that dream a reality.
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.
Stanford design school names three WMU students innovation fellows | Sept. 13, 2019
Product design students envisioning future of mobility with Eaton partnership | May 27, 2020
First cohort of product design program sharp on all edges | March 15, 2021