Earning Their Wings: Vaughn

By Shane Miller

Few of the people sitting on the planes landing on LaGuardia Airport’s Runway 22 probably realize that just a few hundred feet below them the next generation of men and women who will get them safely around the globe are being trained at Vaughn College.

Those include the obvious positions, such as pilots and air-traffic controllers, but also the airport managers and plane mechanics. Over the years, Vaughn College has also expanded its engineering and technology offerings with great success. The school’s Robotics Club won the prestigious VEX U World Robotics Competition last year, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Club placed second in an international drone competition, and the school added a 3-D printing lab. In fact, the robotics team used the lab to make parts for its championship-winning robot.

“Composite materials are going to change the nature of not only aviation, but everything,” said college president Dr. Sharon B. DeVivo. “This whole idea of just-in-time printing. I need a rotor blade, I go down to the shop and four hours later I come back and I have a rotor blade.

In 1939, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia finally opened his dream airport in north Queens. One year later, he convinced his World War I flying comrade Casey S. Jones to move his aeronautics school from Newark to a site overlooking the airport across the Grand Central Parkway, promising Jones he would build a new school for him.

He agreed, and the Casey Jones School of Aeronautics had a new home in Queens. In 2004, the name was changed to Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology to pay homage to co-founder George Vaughn, who was the second-ranked flying ace of WWI. Today, Vaughn educates 1,500 students in a variety of academic programs related to the airline and transportation industry.

“What’s great about the aviation industry is any job you can think of exists – law, insurance, medical, manufacturing, management – I mean just about anything,” DeVivo recently told This Is Queensborough in a 65-foot observation tower/student lounge with a panoramic view of the nearby airport. “And our students tends to be very entrepreneurial, so we have a lot that have started their own companies.”

But DeVivo rankles at the thought of Vaughn College being thought of as a “trade school.” She notes that Vaughn is a four-year university that educates its students in a broad curriculum, including history and communications. The difference is its students are focused on careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – fields.

For example, the college’s new library has a writing center on the second floor staffed by two full-time professors available to assist students through every step of the writing process, from developing a thesis to the finished product. Any student can make an appointment for help or just drop in.

Vaughn’s students tend to come from the five boroughs (38 precent from Queens), and 80 percent of the student body is minority. Many come from immigrant families, and are often the first person in their family to go to college.

DeVivo says the student body is still primarily male, but that is slowly changing. When she arrived at the school in 1996 as a member of the Communications Department, the student body was just 4 percent female. Today, it’s 14 percent.

“What’s interesting is they’ve done studies that show that boys like to get into engineering because of the toys and girls get into engineering because they can make a difference, they want to be able to change the world and do it themselves,” DeVivo said. “So we’re seeing a growing population of females on campus.”

DeVivo said many of their students discover Vaughn while researching careers in the aviation industry and word of mouth, but soon the college will start to work with area high schools and reach out to juniors and seniors who are interested in attending Vaughn, preparing them with the necessary courses to be successful once they arrive at the school.

Vaughn also recently received a grant from JetBlue to purchase a new flight simulator. It will be used by approximately 70 high school students who will be at the school over the summer in an effort to draw them into the aviation industry.

A recent report by The Equality of Opportunity Project found that Vaughn students had the highest upward mobility rate of 2,137 colleges studied nationwide. In other words, 57 percent of Vaughn students move up two or more income brackets upon graduation, while 47 percent of Vaughn graduates end up among the top 20 percent of the highest earners in the United States. According to DeVivo, the average family income of new Vaughn students is just $33,000 per year.

A lot of that success can be attributed to the attention that Vaughn College places on work readiness. As soon as their third semester, students are being prepped for life after Vaughn through a career development course. Ninety-eight percent of Vaughn graduates are in a position within a year of graduating, 80 percent of them in their chosen field.

“They working on their LinkedIn profiles, their resumes, their interview skills, and we want them to start that early because we want them to try for internships,” DeVivo said. “The career placement office is intentionally next to admissions because we are trying to make the strong connection between professional aspirations and being at Vaughn.”

As if on cue, graduating senior Monica Vanterpool passes DeVivo in the hallway and gets a big hug from her college president. Between her junior and senior years, Vanterpool interned with Toyota, an experience that led to a job offer before she even had a diploma in hand. In just days, she would be leaving for Ann Arbor, Michigan, to start her new career.

“It’s so gratifying to see a student succeed,” DeVivo said. “It’s what’s kept me here so long.”

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