Women of Aeronautics and Astronautics group takes flight at Cornell

The Women of Aeronautics and Astronautics Cornell chapter started out slowly during the COVID-19 closures and restrictions, but now, with the help of Assistant Professor Elaine Petro and the financial support of Boeing, the group is flying high.

As an undergraduate and a doctoral student majoring in aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical/space engineering at the University of Maryland, Elaine Petro was active in the local chapter of Women of Aeronautics and Astronautics. When she joined the faculty of Cornell’s Sibley School in the summer of 2020 Petro found there was no Cornell-affiliated chapter of WoAA.

That sad state of affairs did not last long.  

In the fall of 2020 Petro put out the word that there would be a meeting for anyone interested in starting a Cornell chapter of WoAA, and eight or nine people showed up at that first virtual gathering and got the ball rolling.

One of the students at that meeting was Jordan Sandell, who was a sophomore at the time majoring in mechanical engineering. “It was great to find a group of people with similar interests,” Sandell said. “But it was also hard to do much more than meet on Zoom that first year because of COVID.” The group struggled to attract members because all the usual ways of recruiting were temporarily shut off.

The 2021-22 academic year was a different story. Many of the campus’s COVID restrictions were eased, allowing in-person meetings and recruiting. Just as importantly, the Boeing Company decided to sponsor the group financially. “The funding from Boeing completely changed the game for us,” Sandell said. “Before that, we really didn't have any money and couldn’t host events or activities.”

Boeing’s support allowed members of the group to attend the November 2022 Bessie Coleman Women in Aerospace Conference at the University of Michigan, which proved to be a milestone event. Twelve Cornell WoAA members packed into three cars and road-tripped to Ann Arbor.

Photo of the Cornellians attending the 2022 Bessie Coleman Women in Aerospace conferenceIn Ann Arbor they met with students from other, more established chapters and had the chance to ask them about their challenges and successes; they networked with industry representatives from many of the major aerospace firms; and they bonded with each other in ways only a long road trip can truly make possible. “We came back from that conference with all sorts of ideas and excitement about growing the chapter,” Sandell said. Many of those ideas worked, and from that initial group of fewer than ten students in 2020, the Cornell chapter of WoAA now has 70 student members and several active alumni members.

The group recently launched a new website, where their mission is clearly stated prominently on the homepage: “We are a group of students at Cornell who share a passion for aero and a mission of creating a community of like-minded individuals on our campus and beyond.  We work to support the professional and technical development of members to help them achieve their aspirations.” Cornell’s WoAA has general membership meetings, organizes information sessions with aerospace professionals, travels to conferences, and provides a place for members to share their interest and excitement about aeronautics and astronautics.

This mission resonates with sophomore electrical and computer engineering major Angela Zhang, who first heard about WoAA at Clubfest in the fall semester of her first year at Cornell. She decided to join in order to meet people who shared her interest in space and as a way to learn more about the space industry and the career paths available. “Being part of WoAA has been a great experience for me,” Zhang said. “Through WoAA, I was able to form friendships and connections with other students that I might not have met otherwise. I’ve had the opportunity to attend conferences and network with industry professionals who shared their experiences in the field with me. These opportunities have been invaluable in helping me build a strong professional network and land internships and scholarships.”

Professor Petro has stayed involved with Cornell WoAA as their faculty advisor and has been thrilled to see their progress. “Even though Cornell Engineering is close to 50/50 by gender, women are still severely underrepresented in the field of Aerospace Engineering, “Petro said. “Having a student organization dedicated to promoting women in aerospace will help to recruit students into the field and will provide a support network they can use throughout their careers.”

With a few years of experience under their belts, an expanded membership, and continued support from Boeing the stars are the limit for the future of the Cornell chapter of WoAA. If you want to learn more you can visit their website.

Other Articles of Interest