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Raw DS Article: Undergraduates Underappreciated

February 24, 2009

As I look back over my short 22 years on this planet, I can honestly say that there have been only a few occurrences during my life that I could easily describe as being truly life-changing. These transformative experiences have had a direct effect on who I am, why I’m here, and on my beliefs. All too often, the catalyst for these experiences is something simple. Take, for example, my participation in the international non-profit CISV: a religious school teacher asked if I would be interested in taking part in a local minicamp in Denver. Little did I know then what I was getting into—four international camps, a position on the organization’s Executive Committee, fourteen countries visited, numerous friends and great memories later, and I consider myself a better person because of it. Later this year will be the eighth anniversary of another, equally important life-changing catalyst: my attendance at UND Aerospace Camp.

In the summer of 2001, at the age of fourteen, I decided where I wanted to go to college. The ten day camp was the beginning of a very interesting and unique relationship with UND Aerospace. It’s been one that has been productive, but over the past several years has grown tougher as the ideal vision I once had of the school became one of an organization mired in the bureaucracy of the university as a whole and in its own, unique brand of bureaucracy unlike anywhere else I’ve experienced in higher education.

My personal perception of the school has changed dramatically as my professional goals strayed away from the once-ideal life of an airline pilot to that of a mix of aviation and education. UND Aerospace trains airline pilots, a fact professed by several members of the faculty and administration of the school and one that I found to be true once my goals began shifting toward training others to fly. As a result of this point-of-view along with a “rigorous” program and overzealous academic and safety policies, nearly half of my initial Private Pilot class at UND did not finish with a degree from the School of Aerospace Sciences, myself included.

As airlines continue to furlough more pilots, the short-sightedness of having a university that trains airline pilots alone becomes ever more apparent. Sadly, it appears that the school’s administration continues to keep its blinders on. Instead of redeveloping its aviation program to one that produces professional pilots ready for any number of careers in the aviation industry, the administration insists on continuing to sign more and more contracts to provide flight training to foreign airlines.

From 2006-2008 I had the opportunity to serve on the Student Aviation Advisory Council in various positions and roles. As the first contracts were signed, we were assured by everyone within the administration that everyone, both undergraduate and contract students would be treated fairly and equally. Two years later, I can safely say that this is not the case. I’ve seen lead flight instructors and course managers at the airport bend over backwards to meet the needs of contract students while ignoring those of undergraduates. If I would have received such service when I was flying, I likely wouldn’t have had the issues I faced trying to finish my flight instructor certificate, which ultimately culminated in a five-credit F thanks to a professor with hubris and a flight operations administration unwilling to do the right thing.
UND learned from its past experiences with contract training and maintains a combined fleet for undergraduate and contract students. The only problem is that in practicality it is about as separate as it could be without painting the planes two different colors. Undergraduate students have limited access to UND’s brand new Cessna 172s because most of the planes are reserved for contract students. Yes, UND is planning on ordering more aircraft in the future, but maintaining the “show” of an integrated fleet merely hides the truth of the matter.

As someone with nearly half of his flight time from outside of UND, it would seem like my outside experience would be seen as a resource to those who have yet to have the opportunity to escape the “UND bubble.” When it comes to flight education, the more realistic the experience the better the learning is that comes from it. These experiences come from things like an ability to take an airplane on a faraway cross-country flight or a flight through the clouds in actual instrument conditions, I’ve seen many of my fellow students and instructors attempt to gain these experiences only to be shut down by the institutional perception that these flights are either a waste of time or obnoxiously unsafe. As an employee, I’ve seen the trials and tribulations of instructors and students who try and deal with the person most often in charge of allowing them to fly airplanes for longer cross countries. This person is hard to work with at best, and I’ve even witnessed them say no to a person who wanted to eat lunch on a long, 6 hour plus flight. The experience and insight I’ve gained on two long-distance (2000+ mile) flights in small aircraft are beyond anything I’d have ever learned from umpteen number of flights to Jamestown, Fergus Falls or even Fargo. Similarly, the understandings I’ve come to develop from eight or so hours logged flying through the clouds far outweighs the thirty plus hours I’ve spent under a hood simulating instrument conditions, yet I was (and students continue to be) actively dissuaded from flying at risk of life, limb and aircraft utilization.

There was a time not long ago where if someone asked me if I would suggest attending UND for its Aerospace school I would unequivocally say “yes.” Over the past two years that position has changed dramatically. I’ll often tell them the same things I’ve mentioned above, noting that unless changes are made to improve the quality of training to undergraduates, to change the modus operandi from training airline pilots toward something bigger, and fixing the inherent problems with in the flight operations administration, the aviation university as we know it will continue further on the precipice of going away for good. My respect for and love of UND Aerospace originates from the life-changing experiences I’ve had here. I would hate to have future generations of pilots, air traffic controllers and other aviation professionals miss out on a similar life changing opportunity.

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