When college student Liz O’Toole was young, she visited the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in her hometown of New York City. It was a visit that would change the direction of her life, when she met a helicopter pilot—a pilot who just happened to be a woman. When O’Toole saw a female aviator next to her aircraft, something clicked. She could be a pilot too.
It was a story that mirrored the experience of O’Toole’s mentor, aviator Shaesta Waiz, the first woman from Afghanistan to hold a civilian fixed-wing aircraft pilot’s license. Waiz, who was born in a refugee camp and came to the United States as an infant, remembers the moment she knew she wanted to study aviation. For her, it was boarding a Delta commercial flight at 17, her first time on an airplane. What started out as fear at takeoff quickly turned into curiosity: How can a plane fly from her hometown in California, all the way across the United States? Now, 13 years later, she’s on her way to becoming the youngest woman to complete a solo flight around the world in a single-engine aircraft.
Waiz, in the cockpit of a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza A36, has a larger goal in mind.. Her mission is to inspire the next generation of young women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), with her nonprofit Dreams Soar, Inc.
On her historic flight, Waiz is making 28 stops over five continents and 20 countries, in places where STEM education is lacking, to share her story with girls around the globe. Back in the United States, her experience has served as an inspiration to members of her “Dream Team,” a group of college students and recent graduates who work to spread the Dreams Soar mission.
Dream Team members like O’Toole find a kinship with Waiz’s story—inspiration to take to the skies and opposition by teachers and parents down on the ground. Like Waiz, O’Toole was told that she was too weak in math and science to become a pilot.
“I got told all those things not because I’m bad at math, but because I’m a woman and people aren’t used to [seeing a woman pilot,]” she said. Now, Waiz, O’Toole, and other Dream Team members are helping change that image, by sharing their stories and the stories of other female aviators.
“We’re saying, ‘We’re parallel here.’ People tell us that we’re not good enough, we’re only women. We can all relate to that in some way,” media team and fundraising specialist Linda Hall said.
This message was one Waiz and the Dream Team brought to a group of more than 100 girls from DC Metro Public Schools at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., this week. For O’Toole, the dream she realized, staring up at a helicopter at an aviation museum, has come true. She is now a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the global advocacy and engagement specialist at Dreams Soar—and a proud holder of a private pilot’s license.
Whether girls in the audience dream of flight or some other challenge, the Dream Team hoped that they could be inspired to move past barriers to their dreams in the same way Waiz and her team have—through love.
“Every pilot starts with a love story. Love is the most important thing when it comes to inspiration—the love that everyone has for each other on this team, for [Waiz], and for the things we do,” O’Toole said. “Everyone knows what love is, and understands that. If we tap into what people love, the sky is not the limit. The sky is home.”