From Coffee to the Classroom to the Cockpit

From Coffee to the Classroom to the Cockpit

Junior Emily Okunami may have explored a variety of potential college majors before landing on aviation, but she no longer questions if she’s found her passion. While working as a barista, one of her coworkers was training to become a helicopter pilot and encouraged her to pursue a career as an aircraft pilot. “I started to realize there’s no reason I couldn’t become a pilot,” she said. Eventually, she took her first introductory airplane pilot flight. “Taking the controls and soaring through the sky for the first time was an experience that will always stay with me,” Okunami said. 

Prior to that flight, Okunami attended college in Hawaii and later returned to attend community college closer to her family home in Auburn. Her previous educational pursuits took her through a variety of coursework ranging from nutrition to communication to kinesiology. But once she took her first flight, she was hooked. “For me, flying felt like something I could visualize myself getting really good at and enjoying it,” she said.

Attending Jessup has been a positive experience and Okunami finds herself enjoying the smaller, more intimate campus environment because she’s able to get to know fellow students, faculty and staff. “In Hawaii, my teachers didn’t know me like they do here,” she said. “Here, my professors know me personally and are so supportive of my goals.” 

Her favorite courses thus far include basic aircraft systems, aviation human factors, crew resource management and aviation safety. “My crew resource management course is training me to work with different types of personalities and is really interesting and helpful,” she said. 

As a transfer student, Okunami is the first female in Jessup’s aviation program to fly solo during her first semester and was recognized during a ceremony within her department. “I will never forget the nerves and exhilaration of my first solo,” she said. “Even though I was nervous, I knew I had everything under control. Later, it was such an exciting feeling to be recognized by my department, it felt like a huge accomplishment.” 

Volunteering at International Girls Aviation Day, Okunami recognizes the importance of women pursuing careers in her field. “Women are so under-represented in the aviation industry,” she said. “Less than 10% of pilots are women. Women are so capable and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be pilots.”

Planning to graduate in spring 2025, Okunami is currently working to obtain her private pilots license. This summer she takes her instrument/ground certification, then begins working toward her commercial pilots license next year. For now, she plans to become a certified flight instructor or a cargo pilot. 

Helping her combat the hefty cost of accruing flight hours, Okunami finds herself actively applying for a variety of scholarships. One of those required her to create this video.