by Emmanuel Freeman
Growing up in Dallas, Texas, Mateo Lannaman’s dream was to be a pilot and fly high across the sky. With a lack of funding and without a clear path, he didn’t know where to turn until he met a mentor in flight training at Rising Aviation who gave him advice that would change the young man’s life forever.
“He told me about Tennessee State University and the outstanding aviation program there,” Lannaman said. “He said there were scholarships for qualified students who were interested.” Lannaman took his mentor’s advice and applied. He was accepted with a full scholarship to study aviation management as a concentration in the Department of Applied and Industrial Technologies in the College of Engineering. The program is certified to train commercial pilots.
“I am really impressed so far from what I have seen and the family atmosphere,” said the Rock Hill High School graduate, after meeting the dean and a few staff of the College of Engineering during a campus tour Thursday with his family.
With the low number of Black commercial and Air Force pilots in the nation, Lannaman comes into an aviation program that is seeing tremendous growth thanks to a vigorous recruitment effort, outstanding faculty, and a long partnership with the Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) detachment at the university.
“We have a long relationship with the AFROTC through many programs that are benefiting the College of Engineering and our aviation and aeronautics programs,” said Dr. Lin Li, interim dean of the college. He said the goal of the aviation program is to help increase the number of pilots in the country, especially African Americans. Currently, only about 2.6% of commercial pilots are African Americans, while only about six percent African Americans are in aviation management positions. The number is even more dismal for the U.S. Air Force, where less than two percent of pilots are African Americans.
“The purpose of our aviation management program is really to create a pipeline to grow the number of minorities in the industry,” Li said. Through their collaboration, Li said the college and AFROTC have stepped up their effort in recruitment by talking to area high school juniors and seniors. Some initiatives include dual enrollment programs that offer college credit. There is also a 2+2 program with Motlow State Community College, where students majoring in applied and industrial technology taught by TSU professors, can transfer to the university at the end of their two years and complete their four-year degree at TSU. An aviation summer camp for 20 high school students is also planned for 2023, Li said. Participants will receive 45 hours, including flying hours, using simulators and lecture hours.
“We hope this will get students interested in gaining firsthand experience in becoming a pilot,” Li said.
Lt. Col. Michael Wilson is an assistant professor of aerospace studies with AFROTC Detachment 790 at TSU. He said the partnership with the College of Engineering is reaping mutual benefits by attracting the best engineering students to the Air Force as well as working with the college to enhance its aviation program.
“We are working with the College of Engineering, and they are doing a phenomenal job at developing the aviation program,” Wilson said. “The Air Force is inherently in the air. And we develop aviators, and we develop pilots, and we develop training. They have the skill set necessary in the engineering world. So, we help each other in that regard.” Wilson said in addition to recruitment initiatives, the college is receptive to the creation of a living learning community on campus, where engineering students that are in the AFROTC will have a block of rooms to live and learn together.
“This way they hold each other accountable for their studies, make sure they get up in the morning to come do PT, and be where they need to be for all of their classes or all of their studies,” he said.
Currently, eight TSU students are part of a cohort of 65 recruits from institutions across Middle Tennessee who are part of the AFROTC detachment at TSU. Cadet Jaiden Walker, a sophomore political science major, is one of them. The Selma, Alabama, native said his goal is to become an officer in the Air Force. He credits a substitute teacher in the 8th grade with getting him interested in the Air Force.
“He always talked about his experience [in the Air Force] and things he did,” Walker said. “So, when I went to high school, I joined the JROTC, which gave me the opportunity to receive a scholarship.” He said he had the choice of going to any HBCU, but he chose TSU, where he once visited during a college tour.
“That was a very memorable tour for me. Everything just seemed to align well. The fit was right. I enjoyed the people,” he said.
Li said he is working with AFROTC for more scholarships to help interested students defray the cost of the aviation program, as well as developing marketing tools such as billboards, to increase awareness of the program.
“One of our biggest challenges in the College of Engineering is that we have limited pilot instructors. So that’s an area where AFROTC can also help because they have the facilities and the resources,” Li said.