As a third-grader, Sarah Owens was pretty sure she had life all figured out. She would be a commercial pilot (like her dad) and a good citizen (like Junie B. Jones).
Junie, the rambunctious star of Owens’ favorite childhood book series, showed some of the same character strengths that Owens’ own parents had instilled: respect, responsibility, servant leadership, kindness, tolerance. And, of course, an abundance of perseverance.
“That’s just how I was as a kid,” Owens said. “When I knew I wanted to do something, I would just stick to it. No matter what challenges or obstacles were in my way, I was going to push through to reach that end goal.”
And so it went. Once the determined 8-year-old had decided she would learn to fly at UND: “There was pretty much no other choice. I was going to do it.”
Little did she know she would hit a patch of turbulence in her career plan. Or that UND would help her steer through, exactly as the University teaches student pilots how to navigate rough skies.
Owens was barely into her second semester of UND’s Commercial Aviation program when she was thrown for a loop. The pandemic hit, students were sent home, the airline industry was grounded, and everything seemed to change overnight.
“Over the break, I started to think, ‘Oh no, I don’t know if this is still for me. Do I need a career that’s more flexible?’ I was having a college crisis, and I was worried,” she recalled. “Since the third grade, I was going to be a pilot, and I was going to fly at UND. I hadn’t really thought about a Plan B.”
But for all the worries and momentary panic, Owens found comfort in the support she’d encountered at UND. It was there when she first arrived that fall to settle into her residence hall — a Living Learning Community for like-minded aviation students. And it was there again when she returned the next summer with sudden doubts about her chosen path.
“College can be a lot, especially as an aviation student,” she explained. “Not only was I learning how to handle my new college classes, but I also was learning to fly an aircraft. It’s not the same as driving a car like some people think. It can be kind of nerve-racking.
“But UND has such an incredible support system, especially for first-year students. They’re all about ‘Hey, we’re here for you, whatever you need.’ All my expectations were met, probably exceeded. I had a whole network of support, and everyone just made me feel connected.”
Owens reached out to a professor who eased her mind by explaining all would not be lost if she changed her major. And she was inspired by another professor in an entirely unexpected direction, which came about when she took a course in sustainability.
“At first, I thought, ‘Oh no, this is such a big deal,’” she said about her semester of doubts. “But when you put your worries into perspective and realize all the amazing things you can do, it’s OK. That’s just life.”
Such was the insight gained from UND’s counsel, she said. “I don’t think I would have gotten that kind of support and reassurance anywhere else.”
Another element in Owens’ successful navigation through college was her participation in multiple student organizations. The friendships and service strengthened her character and — like a gyroscope — gave her balance to stay on course.
“Even at a very young age, our parents always were big on teaching us servant leadership,” Owens said. “It was important for us to know the social issues in our community and to use whatever gifts we had to help others.
UND has such an incredible support system, especially for first-year students. … All my expectations were met, probably exceeded.
And at UND, she’s done just that as an adept organizer, avid volunteer and community advocate.
For example, as vice president of the student feminist organization known as The F Word, she helped organize UND’s first Period Project — a campaign that raised money and supplies for hundreds of “period kits” to be distributed regionwide.
“That was really a proud moment for us,” she said. “We helped break down the stigma and got out the message that these products are a right, not a luxury.”
That work, along with holiday food drives and organizing events such as a Black HERstory Forum and Soul Food Dinner, led to her recognition as a Martin Luther King Jr. 2022 Social Justice Award winner.
Today, Owens is working on her private pilot’s license as well as earning her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration in Airport Management, with a minor in Sustainability Studies.
“I’m so happy because I was able to put together two things I really love — aviation and caring for the environment,” she said. “It’s exciting. There’s so much innovation and technology that hasn’t even been discovered yet and so many different challenges and paths that I can take.