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WGU Commencement Address from Olga E. Custodio
WGU Commencement Address from Olga E. Custodio
Western Governors University
<p>WGU Commencement in Dallas, TX on February 22, 2020. America's first Latina fighter pilot, and STEM advocate Olga E. Custodio delivered the WGU Commencement Address.</p> <p>Transcription of video:</p> <p>Steven E. Johnson: Join me in thanking both of our speakers, thank you so much. And congratulations on your success. Now I'm pleased to introduce Olga Custodio, our commencement speaker. Olga was the first Latina to complete the U.S. Air Force undergraduate pilot training and to become a pilot. I know. That's wonderful. (Applause) </p> <p>While studying at the University of Puerto Rico, she tried to participate in the university's Reserve Officer Training Corps program, but was denied, as women were not allowed to do so at that time. But Olga never gave up. She went on to fulfill her dream of becoming a commissioned military officer and then some. She severed for 24 years in the United States Air Force, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. (Applause) </p> <p>Along the way she received an Aviation Safety Award for superior airmanship, for handling of an in flight emergency. After transitioning to the U.S. Air Force Reserves, Olga became the first Latina commercial airline pilot, and later upgraded to captain, flying for American Airlines. (Applause) </p> <p>Today, Olga is retired, with over 11,000 flight hours to her name. Those of you that are pilots know that is a lot of hours. She works with several non profit organizations that advocate for inspiring and empowering students, especially those from underserved communities to pursue careers in aviation and aerospace. </p> <p>As a STEM advocate, she also has volunteered her time as a speaker at local schools, universities, corporations, military base groups, encouraging young women and men to reach for their dreams. Olga serves as a mentor with the Women of Aviation International, Aviation Explorers, and the School of Aeronautics at Inter American University in Puerto Rico. </p> <p>By pioneering many firsts during her career, Olga has shattered stereotypes and served as a powerful role model. Please join me in welcoming, Olga Custodio. (Cheers and applause) </p> <p>Olga E. Custodio: Thank you very much. This is an honor to be here celebrating your success. This is a great moment in your life, whether it's a bachelor's or a master's degree. Achieving something in this stature is phenomenal. </p> <p>Everyone's decision to make this commitment is unique, but also has a common thread. The feeling of accomplishments after sacrifices and dedication to a goal that you set for yourself. The value of this educational achievement establishes the standard for you, and your family. The capstone of the time, effort, sacrifices that you have made working on your degree will be when you walk across this stage today. </p> <p>So there I was, I have to give you a pilot story because that's what I do. And all pilot stories starts with, "So there I was." As a Latina, it was natural because we normally talk with our hands a lot. I've learned to calm that down, but still as a pilot, you know, to instruct you and tell you what you need to do, you have to speak with your hands. </p> <p>It was a warm those of you from Texas know that there's nothing "warm" in Texas, it's hot West Texas day. The tower had just cleared me for takeoff. And as I'm lowering the canopy, I'm looking down final to make sure there aren't any other aircraft coming. I take the centerline, check my engine instruments, and make sure that everything checks okay. </p> <p>Push the power up. Release the brakes and I'm rolling down the runway. V1. Check instruments. All good. Continue. V2. Rotate. Lift off. I get my gear up. I get my flaps up. Crosscheck. And the next thing is bam! Windscreen goes dark, and there I was. </p> <p>Everything I had experienced and learned about life and myself brought me to this moment. And I was going to need all of it. When I talk to people and find they used to have a dream or a goal, and never went after it, I always ask, "Why?" Because I understand life happens, and it gets in the way. But was it really a dream or a goal, or just a passing thought? If the next thing they say, with the sound of regret, "I wish I would have " my answer is, "it's never too late." </p> <p>Today's success is just one of many defining moments and events in your life that will help you find your purpose and define what success means to you. It started with a vision, a goal, followed with a plan. When my kids would come up to me and say they wanted to do something, I would always ask them, "So what's your plan?" Because without a Plan A, there is no Plan B. And it's just a roadmap, a guidance to get you from point to point and help you execute what you're trying to achieve. </p> <p>But, there are always unforeseen barriers or obstacles, but you learn to adapt because the path is never a straight line. There will be many detours along the way. But you need never to lose sight of the vision and the goal. I knew I wanted to follow my father's military service. I didn't know what my military service would be, but I knew I was committed to that journey. I had a vision and a plan. And right at the start the door was shut in my face. </p> <p>My plan to get a math degree, to get a commission with the ROTC program at the University of Puerto Rico. But instead I was faced with a commander who didn't know what to do with me. And he said he was sorry, but "we won't be able to allow you to come into this program." He had pulled out a test out of a drawer. He gave it to me. And then he made me believe that I did not pass that test. </p> <p>I had no idea what discrimination was like. I was 16 years old when I entered college. And to me, he was the commander, he was the authority, and I accepted his word. What I didn't know was that women weren't allowed, and I don't know if he was afraid to tell me, or didn't want to tell me. </p> <p>So Plan B. Accounting? Close to math, but not really. But anyway, (chuckles) I needed a degree to be able to get a job now, because I knew I wasn't going to be in the service. Overcoming self doubt isn't easy, but getting the encouragement of others who believe in you is something everyone needs. So remember the people you surround yourself with, that mentored you, that supported you when things got challenging. </p> <p>Sometimes when you're denied an opportunity it doesn't mean never, it just means it's not the right time, or the right opportunity, and there are so many more experiences you still need to have in order to prepare you for the right opportunity. So don't give up. Be open to the detours, you never know what path will give you, things you never imagined. </p> <p>When I was in my last year at the university, I was taking night courses because I had already taken a full time job at a commuter airline, working in the accounting department. Close to math, right? No. </p> <p>Anyway, so a few months in my last semester that year, I was taking my last three courses. And I'd just gotten married. I was really young, I was 21 years old. And all I had was three more months to go, three courses to finish. And I would get a call at work from my mother, and she would say, "Miha, honey, how are you doing?" "I'm doing great, Mom." And she would say, "Well, you are going to class tonight, right?" </p> <p>She knew how easy it would've been for me to say, "Life is good. I have a job. I'm married. What do I need this for?" But just the fact that she called, she was very, very smart. She says, "Why throw it all away with all that time and effort and money? You're right at the finish line." But I did think about those options. It would've been easy to say, "I'm just going to go home, I'm a newlywed, I just want to be with my husband, and life is good." But I knew what I had to do. I went ahead, finished my degree, thanks to my mom's encouragement. </p> <p>But it took me ten years and my third attempt to finally get the opportunity to serve in the U.S. Air Force. That degree was key to getting the opportunity to apply for a commission. It was just the key that opened the door. And I also got military undergraduate pilot training. </p> <p>So back to my flying story. There I was, bam! The windscreen is dark. Looking up, it's covered with blood, with feathers. I immediately went into emergency mode. The first steps in any flight emergency is maintain aircraft control. You have to be in control and keep the airplane flying. Second, analyze the situation. So there's the blood. Immediately my eyes went to my instruments. Did I lose an engine? How is this? </p> <p>In my twin engine jet, a T 37, during a primary phase in Air Force undergraduate pilot training I was on a solo flight. My pilot skills, situational awareness and mental aptitude was put to the test. Checking the instruments was great. Everything was working. The turkey vulture that hit me wasn't so lucky. Off he went. But luckily did not go into my engine. The windscreen didn't crack. I could still see through the blood and through the feathers. It was blurry, but I was still able to make out what was in front of me. </p> <p>I was nervous but my training and my discipline kicked in. Emergency mode and survival mode primarily. I declared an emergency, immediately entered the traffic pattern and was talking to the tower. They directed every aircraft in that traffic pattern out of the way, I had the priority to the runway, as fast as I could get there. They sent a chase aircraft with an instructor, and a student to check out my airplane to make sure that it was structurally sound for me to continue to land the airplane. </p> <p>I got my gear down, my flaps down. I was full of gas. I had just taken off. The T 37 only needs 3,000 feet to land. Luckily the runway in front of me was 10,000 feet long, so I had plenty of room. When you declare an emergency, the emergency vehicles immediately come to the approach end of the runway. So when you land, depending on if you crash or not, they're right there to greet you and put you out if you're on fire. </p> <p>So I landed the aircraft. It was a long landing. They're chasing me down the runway. I continued down and I pull off, shut the engines down, open the canopy, and I'm greeted by the ambulance. And the first thing they ask is, "Are you okay?" "I'm fine." Everything's great. Followed the checklist, did everything I was taught, and there I was. Thirty minutes later when I felt my knees buckle, reality it set in, and the adrenaline started wearing off. What had just happened? Incredible. </p> <p>Successfully handling the emergency and safely landing the aircraft elevated my confidence. This moment had defined that I had what it took to be a pilot. Not only when everything is functioning as it should, but when the red lights and the fire bells go off. In this profession, you must have some skills to become successful. But motivation, combined with these skills is a huge part of reaching success. </p> <p>Later, as an instructor pilot, I could see this in my students. I was able to develop those skills, and with their motivation, help them successfully graduate from flight training. The denials and the delays led me to this opportunity because I never gave up on my goal, and stayed open to the possibilities and the opportunities. </p> <p>I was challenged in training. Some instructors told me that I wasn't going to make it. They thought it would make me give up. But I had waited too long to enter the Air Force, and I wasn't going to let anyone discourage me. So I gave it everything I had. I could've never imagined I would become the first Latina female U.S. military pilot, graduating in the top five percent in my class...(cheers and applause) thank you...to return to fly the Supersonic T 38 aircraft, and become an instructor pilot in that. It was the fastest aircraft any female military pilot could fly at that time. </p> <p>Your degree shows commitment and discipline. It will open up opportunities. Many people, sometimes end up in a profession not even related to their degree. My degree was in business administration with a minor in math. But the commitment to finish my degree was an experience that I had earned and proved that I could follow through. Your studies took discipline, time management, and work/life balance to get you here today. You had to make the commitment. You had to make your schedule, and you had to motivate yourself. </p> <p>Your mentor's guidance and experience gave you the hope to navigate through the times when you had doubt. Be proud of your achievement, enjoy and celebrate this moment. Most of the time we're always thinking about tomorrow without living in the present. Planning for tomorrow is essential. But don't forget to enjoy life. Find what makes you happy, and get paid to do what you love. You will need mentors along the way, so be ready to go out and find them. All you have to do is ask. You'll be surprised how many people will be gracious with their time to help you. Great leaders want the people they lead to be successful and succeed. It's up to you to put in the hard work. And as you do, you will gain the respect and support of others. </p> <p>Stay open to the possibilities and opportunities. Remember that respect is something that you cannot demand, it is earned. Learning how to process information for problem solving is an important skill which I'm sure you had to use working towards this degree. But just as important is developing your emotional intelligence in order to deal with people and situations. Building relationships through respect and trust is an added value and make sure you listen with purpose. </p> <p>As you climb your success ladder, don't forget to reach down and pull others up with you. Share your successes, as well as your struggles, what you learn from those struggles and how they made you stronger and more determined. </p> <p>As you continue towards the goals ahead, don't leave behind the people that supported you and encouraged you. Know what and who is important in your life and bring them on the journey with you. They will be there to share your successes because you've heard the phrase "it's lonely at the top." Those are the people who left everyone behind. </p> <p>I have a personal mantra. It's [Spanish]. And those of you who speak Spanish kind of understand what that means. But I will translate. My first translation of this was, "Where there's a will, there's a way." But through the years I have learned to translate it in a different way. "Where there's a will, there is power." Power behind that will, that you can do anything you put your mind to.</p> <p>I had to make my own path, and I left a trail. I believe it allows an opportunity of awareness for the young and the not so young, that anything is possible if you follow your passion, and have the patience to pursue it. Don't be afraid to be confident and open to the possibilities that will lead to those opportunities. Stay curious and continue to learn. The next chapter is waiting as you continue your experiences and pursuit of your purpose. Congratulations, well done, and thank you very much. (Cheers and applause)</p>
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