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Friends promote STEM careers for youth

The Aviation Youth Empowerment Foundation established an inaugural $4,000 Bessie Coleman Aerospace Legacy scholarship for science, technology, engineering, and math students in urban environments that also helps honor the first Black woman to earn a private pilot certificate. The funds can be used for tuition, books, tools, or other resources, said founder, private pilot, and Cessna 150 owner Nathan Rix, who is based at Pearson Field in Vancouver, Washington.

The initial scholarship application closed at the end of March, but the group is considering additional scholarships in the near future as the word gets out to the aviation and aerospace industry. The maximum per student award is $4,000, and the foundation’s goal is to fund 20 scholarships in California, Oregon, and Washington by 2023.

Rix said he hopes the funds will empower youth from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds to pursue STEM careers through their exposure to aviation.

Rix said he first observed an educational disparity among New York City youth when he served as a Teach for America educator in the Bronx. He pledged he would make changes to open the youths’ eyes to new frontiers, so he recruited a diverse cadre of companions to help him establish the Aviation Youth Empowerment Foundation scholarship program.

Aviation Youth Empowerment Foundation President Jennifer Lopez Ibrahim, her husband Justin, and Kristen Rix, the wife of founder Nathan Rix, gather for photo before a flight. Photo courtesy of the Aviation Youth Empowerment Foundation.

“The four of us friends on the board all share a common interest in aviation. We’re all volunteers, really, and all of us want to do more to diversify the aviation industry at large,” he said. “We help high school students and others who want to go to college get the financial resources they need and provide the mentorship with people who are already in the field,” he added.

Rix, who now lives and works in Portland, Oregon, recruited engineer, project manager, and transportation expert Jennifer “Jen” Lopez Ibrahim; career aviator, pilot recruiter, and community volunteer Luke Abare; and urban policy planner, land-use expert, and public administration specialist Southisone “Sou” Souvanny Garner. Together, their experience spans dozens of potential flying, aviation management, and airport jobs that young people can pursue as careers, once they’re made aware of the options. The jump from high school to college can be difficult even for the smartest minority students, Rix said.

Rix said he and the other foundation board members either lacked the financial means to pursue aviation when they were younger or “didn’t see a lot of people who looked like them” during their quest for professional STEM careers. He reiterated that the foundation aims to change the “exposure level” for young people to include STEM options that open the door to aviation and aerospace careers.

“Two other points help us stand out,” added Rix. “We rely on listening to women and people of color who are already in the STEM fields so we can better understand the biggest challenges they face; and we tell companies to think more about inclusion. Some firms haven’t really thought through how to diversify their staff, so we want to have those conversations—and then support them going above and beyond—by talking to students who have already gone through the programs. We want to help the companies find these gems.”

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