Hi! My name is Vicky Morales. I am a senior at Vaughn College, graduating in May with my bachelor’s degree in aircraft operations. I have an associate degree in airport management with a minor in air traffic control. My mother was born and raised in Colombia and my father was born and raised in Puerto Rico. My sisters and I were born in New York City, though, and I’m proud to be a New Yorker.
My interest in aviation started early. I traveled around the country a lot growing up, competing in rhythmic gymnastics. I trained and competed for close to nine years, in venues all around the country, but eventually shifted my focus to high school and college goals. But my favorite part of these trips and our family vacations were the plane rides, walking through the airports and flying so high in the air. I always applauded the pilots after a landing, and peaked my head into the cockpit as I walked by.
I graduated from Long Island City High School in 2010. I didn’t specifically have a career as a pilot in mind, but for a long time I had my sights set on Vaughn College. I attended the spring open house at Vaughn during my senior year in high school, and I was sold almost immediately. Everything about Vaughn College seemed so “cool” (the only word I could use to describe it to my guidance counselor).
Now, in addition to my career as a student, I work in the office of admissions at Vaughn. I split my time between classes, work and flight school. After graduation I’m going to continue flying and I’d love to help Vaughn’s future flight students, either on campus or at Heritage Flight Academy. I’ve made life-long friends and memorable experiences at Vaughn, and I’m confident that it only goes up from here.
Leadership, a love for aviation and his exceptional people skills were the driving forces behind Vaughn graduate Otha Ward’s ’19 pursuit of a career in airport management. At 22 years old, Ward is making a name for himself at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), where he holds the position of airport operations agent.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Airports operate under Part 139 Certification issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ensure safety in air transportation. As an airport operations agent, Ward is responsible for upholding and meeting the standards of Airport Operating Certificates and assist in keeping airport operations within FAA compliance. On any given day, Ward is responsible for numerous aspects of airport safety. Here’s a snapshot of some of his responsibilities:
- Operations: Bird strikes are a reality in aviation safety which can have catastrophic results. Ward explained how keeping wildlife under control is no easy task, as JFK airport lies near a protected wildlife preserve, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. “My job is to ensure the runways and taxiways are clean, safe and free of any wildlife,” he said. Ward pointed out how they never use any lethal methods but instead rely on devices that make loud noises to scare the wildlife away, such as pyrotechnics.
- Construction: Airport construction sights must be managed to the highest standards to ensure pilots do not fly into a construction zone. Among the responsibilities of the sight safety observer―or SSO―is to keep the site safe by controlling the lighting, providing the sufficient number of security guards and placing the low-mass barriers in the correct positions. “Managing the construction site is one of my biggest responsibilities,” Ward stated. “It’s my job to keep the site safe. I have the control to shut the site down if I feel it’s unsafe and I have done so in the past. There’s no cap when it comes to safety.”
- Relocating Airplanes: Another aspect of his job is to relocate airplanes when space is at a minimum. “We have a separate ‘parking area’ for these planes. I work directly with air traffic control to keep everything flowing smoothly on the ground.”
WHY HE CHOSE VAUGHN COLLEGE
Growing up in Baldwin, NY, Ward loved to play sports but also shared his time with his extended family who lived in New York City. After high school, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in the aviation industry. But where? Being familiar with the area, Ward researched colleges in the neighboring towns and boroughs. “I was blown away by Vaughn College and their recognition as being ranked number one in upward mobility,” he said. “The high success rate of students finding great jobs in their field after graduation sealed the deal for me. Choosing Vaughn was a smart choice.” In fact, 99% of Vaughn graduates are employed or continue their education within one year, and 83% are employed within their chosen field. Ward is a perfect example of a student who has achieved this and more.
THE PATHWAY FROM VAUGHN TO JFK
While pursuing his bachelor’s degree in airport management at Vaughn, Ward explained how the faculty, staff and curriculum all worked together seamlessly to ensure his success.
- Summer internship: The career services department was instrumental in helping place Ward in a summer internship at JFK, where he said he earned valuable experience and exposure to the industry. His exceptional work ethic and performance afforded him an extension of his internship through the academic year, where he worked his way up and gained further experience.
- Leadership roles: In his junior year, Ward gained more proficiency and exposure by holding leadership positions in campus clubs. He was the president of the Vaughn student chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) and vice president of the student chapter of the Women in Aviation organization. As an alumnus of the College, he currently serves on the president’s board with industry leaders.
- Outstanding professors: There’s no denying Ward received an outstanding education and gained rewarding experience at Vaughn. He credits his success with not only the professionalism and knowledge of his professors but the firsthand experience from the adjunct professors. “They teach and we learn in real time. It’s one of the most valuable parts of a Vaughn education.”
Three months prior to his graduation in May 2019, Ward began working in his current position at JFK. “I knew it was a rigorous application process for the job at JFK, so I submitted my resume early,” Ward explained. The three-step process took months to complete, but Ward said it all paid off in the end. After submitting his resume, he was required to take the Airport Operations Agent (AOA) exam. Then, the waiting process began when the decision board narrowed down the applicants and asked them back for an interview.
Ward credits Vaughn with helping him pursue his dream and land a rewarding career at an international airport. “Vaughn is a special place,” he stated humbly. “The College has connections that sets it apart from other institutions—making that one of its greatest assets. I’m grateful to everyone at Vaughn for helping me get to where I am today.”