When aviation student Elspeth Thomas graduates from University of North Dakota next summer, she’ll not only be certificated as a commercial pilot, she will also be the first woman from the Standing Rock Lakota tribe to study aviation at the university, according to the school.
Demographic data for UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences underscores the accomplishment. Women comprise about 15 percent of students at the Grand Forks, North Dakota, school.
Thomas, who grew up in Grand Forks and whose mother was born and raised on the Standing Rock Reservation, already completed her commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings, and she’s in the process of earning her initial flight instructor certificate.
In addition, she is also an active member in several student organizations, including the UND Indian Association, American Indians in Science and Engineering, Women in Aviation, and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, an organization that represents minority students.
“Both of my parents and a couple other family members were in the Air Force, and I was exposed to aviation at a young age,” Thomas said, as reported by UND Today.
While her parents did not work on the flight line in the USAF, Thomas and her family lived on bases in Cavalier and Grand Forks. Despite the exposure to aviation as a child, there were challenges in being a first-generation aviation student, she said.
“Even for me, being a first-generation aviation student, I don’t have parents who are airline pilots, which is the case for many other students,” she said. “That type of background turns out to be a valuable guide in knowing the right people to talk to and finding the right resources. So, in that way, there can be so many challenges and obstacles to overcome.”
Thomas said she hopes to see more Native Americans enter the field of aviation.
“In our Lakota culture, and likely other Native nations, the expectation is to give back to your people and your community,” she said. “I want to see more Native people in this field, and I’m always going to try to inspire young people in my community—to open that door for them.”