KALAMAZOO, Mich.—With two degrees in hand and a plan to become a flight instructor, Laila Stein has a clear future on the horizon. But it's likely just a layover to one of the many career destinations her experiences at Western Michigan University made possible.
"I could never imagine that I would be here one day," says the soon-to-be Western Michigan University alumna, who will graduate with honors on Saturday, April 29, with degrees in aviation flight science and aviation management. "I think it's because of the opportunities and the people here at Western who said, 'Hey, we see that within you,' or, 'Hey, take a chance on this,' that I've been able to grow."
Stein initially arrived on Western's campus on a whim. As she began her senior year in high school and started thinking about the future, she hadn't landed on a major—or college—that felt just right. She'd applied to a number of universities in the Midwest and would hop in the car with her parents and head out from their home in Greenwood, Indiana, to check them out.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do. I applied to one as a criminal justice major. I applied to two as an engineering major—some other random major every time. And my mom finally said, 'We've really got to narrow it down,'" she remembers. "I had gone to a bunch of aviation summer camps as a kid through my local airport and my mom said, 'You loved this as a kid, let's just go visit Kalamazoo (to check out Western's aviation program).’"
Despite being unprepared for the cold, wintry mix that greeted her at Western, Stein was enamored with the possibilities the University opened up.
"We went to the College of Aviation, and I had no idea you could go to college and become a pilot. And I also had no idea women could become pilots—it just wasn't something I saw every day. But our tour guide was a woman and I just remember thinking, 'I can do this. This is what I want to do.' And I applied, got accepted and never looked at any other school."
Right from the start, Stein began racking up experiences that helped her gain altitude toward her career goals. In addition to laying the groundwork for a future in flight, she also got involved in organizations like Western Student Association (WSA), National Gay Pilots Association and Aviation Student Council, which she became the first female and LGBTQ+ president of her senior year. She also served as a student ambassador in the College of Aviation, giving tours to prospective students in the shoes she once occupied and telling them why Western was the right choice for her.
"As a student, going to class is your 9 to 5 … but Western also fills that 5 to 9 gap. … That's really what makes the difference; it's not just having awesome faculty and professors but having awesome student leaders and the Office of Student Engagement and everyone who works to help develop students on their off time. That's what really elevated my experience above anything I could have ever imagined when I walked in the door," she says.
"I can show people airplanes all day long. But when they hear, 'You're really valued as a human being;' when they hear, 'You're supported. There's an organization that meets your identity as a human being,' that's when people are really locked in."
In addition to making an impact on prospective students, Stein's Lee Honors College thesis has also given her the potential to make an impact on future aviation Broncos. Her research into improving pilot mental health was recognized in broader circles, earning her an invitation to speak on a panel at the University of North Dakota Aerospace Symposium on Mental health.
"It was there that I fully recognized that my dreams of pursuing a better world for aviation professionals and their mental health could be a reality, and it truly solidified that I want to throw everything I have behind this mission as I begin my professional career."
Her thesis advisors pushed her to delve deeper into the research, which evolved into surveying aviation students about their perceptions of the Federal Aviation Administration's mental health regulations.
"There's a huge stigma and a huge understanding between pilots and the industry as a whole that reaching out for help means we'll never be able to fly an airplane again," says Stein. "I don't think what you do (in your occupation) should prevent you from getting the access to care that we all need as human beings."
Administrators in the College of Aviation told Stein they are interested in seeing the full results of her project and potentially implementing some changes to better support aviation students in the future.
"I'm working with my thesis chair, Jessica Birnbaum, trying to see what it would look like to not only educate students but faculty, staff and flight instructors as well about how we can do better as a college on this issue," she says. "The college has been nothing but supportive of what I want to do and given me every access and every tool that I could ever need to succeed."
Just days from graduation, Stein is ready to take off from Western and start her career ascent. She plans to pursue a job opportunity as a flight instructor in Indiana and rack up the flight hours needed to become a commercial pilot while "continuing to pursue the things I love like more diversity in aviation, letting kids of all backgrounds know this is an opportunity for them—not just flying … but maintenance, management. We need every single job in the aviation industry in order to meet demand," she says. "I'd like to make an impact in my local community, you know, do some good in the world around me wherever I can."
Eventually, she may become a commercial airline pilot or airline administrator. Whatever the path, Western has equipped Stein with the tools to confidently pursue those goals.
"I often describe myself as the shy, introverted kid who had a lot of passion and a lot of drive for things, but I didn't really know where to place it or what to do with it. And I think coming (to Western) really taught me that there's a place for every passion and there's a mechanism for every drive you have to do things."
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