News and Events
By Kathryn Boswell
For thirty years, Dr. Paul Foster Jr. has worked in aviation maintenance—a profession that has always brought him sincere joy and satisfaction. And for thirty years, he has wondered why so few women and minorities choose to pursue the same path.
When Foster came to Pepperdine’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology to earn his doctorate in Organizational Leadership, he had already formulated his dissertation title: “Recruiting Women and Minorities into Aviation Maintenance.”
Ever since he was a young boy, Foster has had a passion for airplanes. He spent countless hours building model planes to add to his growing collection. By the third grade, he had constructed almost every type of aircraft, assembling each piece to the exact measurements and colorful detail. His entire life he felt it—airplanes were his destiny.
When a few pilots came to speak to Foster’s junior-high class about joining the Army, Foster approached them and asked how he could work with airplanes. “One of them said to me, ‘Son, with glasses that thick, a career in aviation is out of the question,’” remembers Foster. He was devastated.
It was not until years later when he was standing out on the tarmac with his brother in Germany that Foster’s hope would be renewed. His father had been stationed there as a military police officer and Foster would often go to the local air shows, taking the rare opportunity to step inside the airplanes. While he stood looking at one of the planes, he turned to his brother and said, “I wish I could be in there.” One of the nearby Air Force pilots overheard him and asked, “Well, why can’t you?” Foster explained his vision problem and the pilot responded, “Well, you could be a flight engineer, or a load master, or. . . .” Listening to the pilot list all the possibilities, “It was then that my interest in aviation came back to life,” says Foster.
Foster ultimately spent twenty-one years in the U.S. Air Force where he progressed from an aircraft mechanic, to a master instructor teaching aircraft mechanics, to superintendent of the aviation and aerospace sciences program at the Community College of the Air Force. It was during that time that Foster says he got the “teaching bug.”
The Air Force offers degree-completion programs, and Foster was responsible for the program’s orientation portion. He would start each newcomer briefing with the same speech and, to this day, he recounts it with the same passion he shared with those original audiences. “I am going to describe to you the ideal campus,” he begins. “There is a gym, childcare, theaters, student organizations, all at no cost. Now, how many of you would like to attend a school like that?” The hands would go up. “‘How many of you know that you are already on that college campus?’ I always liked promoting that aspect of the Air Force because for many of these individuals, it was the first step towards an education,” says Foster.
Throughout his career, Foster noted that very few of his aviation colleagues were from minority groups. “I had started attending conferences on aviation maintenance,” explains Foster, “and I realized that there was always just a handful of minorities in attendance, and even fewer women. I particularly remember a conference that took place in Alabama. Here I was in a state that was predominantly black and only five of the attendees looked like me. I asked myself, ‘What is wrong with this picture?’”
But Foster is not one to wait on others to get things done. He routinely goes into Southern California middle schools and high schools and speaks with students, particularly minority students, about opportunities in aviation maintenance and beyond. “I try to expose the kids to all aspects of aviation,” says Foster. He explains it as his way of “reaching back” to help others, just as those pilots did for him on that tarmac in Germany. “But you’ve got to have the tenacity to get what you want,” Foster says. “It’s not going to come to you, you’ve got to go out there and get it.”
After a twenty-one-year career in the Air Force, Foster has spent the last eight years with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and is currently with the Runway Safety Office, a unit within the FAA that researches incidents involving aircraft that come too close to one another, unauthorized access to runways, and unsafe activities among vehicles that operate on airport runways.
This article first appeared in The Colleague Magazine, Spring/Summer 2004.