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Rewriting the Rules: 2020 Female Graduates Take Charge

By Dakota Parks for Pensacola Magazine

High school and college graduates are the faces and voices of the future. Despite the fact that women have surpassed men in higher education, accounting for 56 percent of U.S. college students, there are still disproportionate gender gaps in many career fields and positions of leadership.

According to the Defense Department, women make up 20 percent of the Air Force, 19 percent of the Navy, 15 percent of the Army and almost 9 percent of the Marine Corps. When it comes to flying or maintaining aircraft within the Federal Aviation Administration, women account for 2.3 percent of aviation mechanics and 5 percent of pilots. In the political arena, according to ICMA, women make up 30 percent of local government positions but only 20 percent of Congress.

Although the gender gap is slowly shrinking in many career fields, women hold a significantly lower percentage of leadership positions around the globe. The National Institute for Women’s Leadership at Nichols College reports that globally women hold only 24% of senior leadership and executive positions. Female representation and equity in the workforce are of the upmost importance to ensure that women have a critical role in decision making and impacting the future.

Pensacola Magazine had the honor of interviewing five young women from University of West Florida (UWF), George Stone Technical College and Escambia High School that are making strides in their career fields and serving as role models in their community. Because of these women, the future will have a voice in aviation, education, cybersecurity, politics and the military.

Zenani Johnson works in local government, is a UWF graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and was the first elected African- American Student Body President at UWF.

Hailey Walker is an athlete, a soon-to-be college volleyball player and the Escambia High School Hall of Fame 2020 Engineering Superlative.

Kate Englemeyer is a lifelong musician and a violinist. She received her bachelor’s in music education from UWF and was just hired as orchestra director for the Escambia County School District.

Kendra Perkins received her bachelor’s in cybersecurity from UWF, was in the Air Force ROTC program and commissioned into the Air Force as a second lieutenant, where she will continue with a master’s degree in cybersecurity from UWF.

Kira Burch works for ST Engineering and is the first woman to graduate from the Aviation Maintenance Program at George Stone.

Zenani Johnson, 22

University of West Florida

A passion for policymaking, educational advocacy and local government doesn’t just manifest overnight. For Zenani Johnson, it starts with a mission to help people. From a young age, Johnson has always wanted to help. Her childhood dreams bounced from mechanic to plumber to lawyer to the next popular daytime TV show judge. Johnson’s childhood passion for law and justice and ensuring that people are treated fairly has never left.

Growing up in Tallahassee, Johnson’s family served as her anchor and support system while showing her how important it is to invest in community youth, education and volunteer work. As a teenager, she served on the Palmer Munroe Teen Center Youth Advisory Board where she first learned to work on a team and plan events. From there, she joined the Leon County Summer Youth Employment Program where she worked in the city manager’s office and learned hands on how local government creates policy.

“The program exposed me to a career path that I never would have known about,” Johnson said. “I had a vague understanding of how important policy was until I saw it in action. I never knew how much of an impact policy could make on a person’s day-to-day life. Helping just one bill pass can increase funding to an area that will help people in need.”

It wasn’t until Johnson was in high school that she discovered Student Government Association (SGA). She served as SGA President in high school and took that interest with her to UWF where she came to study psychology, sociology and public administration. Johnson explained that her studies aligned with key areas she became an advocate for.

“I enjoyed studying the human mind and how it functions, as well as learning how to better advocate for mental health, but psychology also shows us how basic needs can affect a person. Food insecurity and homelessness can affect someone’s mental health and their overall well-being. Once we understand psychology, we can understand other areas of life,” Johnson explained.

As a sophomore, Johnson pioneered UWF’s first Emergency Housing Program after witnessing a close friend struggle with homelessness. This program designed to house and assist homeless students has since been replicated by several other universities in Florida.

“Going to class by day and sleeping in their car by night— I feel like that’s not something that should be happening in college. You’re not able to focus on getting your education when you’re struggling for basic needs,” Johnson said. “I believe that education is the greatest equalizer, and I want to do anything in my power to help students succeed. Anyone that wants to go to school should have the opportunity to do so, and finances, debt, food and housing shouldn’t be factors that keep them from getting an education.”

Advocating for vulnerable students is something Johnson continued to pursue passionately with her work in SGA. In 2019, she made history as UWF’s first elected African-American SGA Student Body President.

She was also selected as Chair of the Florida Student Association (FSA) which allowed her a seat on the Florida Board of Governors as a Student Representative, where she represented more than 350,000 students across the state of Florida.

“It was a surreal moment and feeling to be elected Student Body President, but it’s not enough for me to be the first,” Johnson said. “It wouldn’t mean anything to me if there was never a second, third or fourth. Representation matters and serving as a role model as a black woman, I just want to show other young people that they can do it too. I hope I paved the way for more young people to follow if they too dream of sitting in these seats one day.”

While working with FSA and the National College Attainment Network, Johnson was able to advocate for key areas affecting college students including mental health, college debt, food and housing insecurities and both aid and protections for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students. During her junior year, she travelled to Washington, DC with members of California and New York’s student associations, collectively representing 4.1 million students, to meet with members of Congress to advocate for more financial backing and support for TPS and DACA students so that they can acquire less debt in school.

Additionally, Johnson was able to spearhead two initiatives during her time in the FSA. The first one being the elimination of the textbook tax and the second being House bill 3419. House bill 3419 was an appropriation request that would help alleviate food and housing insecurities amongst institutions within the state university system. The bill passed through the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, but later died in the Appropriations Committee. Johnson explained that the next FSA board may still be able to push the bill forward.

Johnson’s dedication to helping others has earned her several awards including the Girl Scouts of the Panhandle Visionary Award, two Congressional awards, the United States Presidential Volunteer Service Award, the Florida Department of Education Volunteer of the Year Award and the Tallahassee Democrat 5 Young Women to Watch Award in addition to many others. Johnson said that she is grateful and honored to receive these awards, but she is even more grateful for the opportunity to give awareness to the critical issues she represents.

As for her next steps, Johnson recently completed an internship with Escambia County Administrator Janice Gilley, and she has now accepted a position in her office as a liaison and project specialist. Johnson said that her long-term career path would be working as a county administrator or city manager, but she dreams of working towards becoming a future congresswoman.

Bringing awareness to issues and being an advocate to those in need is at the heart of what inspires and pushes Johnson forward. “I have always tried to give the voiceless a voice and speak for those who may not be at the tables I’m sitting at,” Johnson said. “Any time I am in a leadership position, I want to speak on behalf of people who are not in those rooms or not at those tables. I believe in equity and helping people get to where they want to be in life. My definition of success is impacting or improving someone else’s life.”

Hailey Walker, 18

Escambia High School

Diving and skidding across the gymnasium floor to hit a dig and block a kill is Hailey Walker’s specialty. Donning the volleyball court in a contrasting-colored jersey from her teammates, it is easy to spot her defensive skills at work. As a libero, Walker is specialized in defense and is the only player that can sub out with back-row players without prior notice to officials. Like most athletes, Walker’s passion for competition started in her childhood.

At around age nine, she started playing softball, but it wasn’t until middle school when she found her niche for volleyball. Walker was a varsity volleyball player and a two-year letterman at Escambia High School. She also played varsity softball as a shortstop and was a four-year letterman.

Early into her high school career, Walker became determined to pursue her dream of playing volleyball in college. Her long hours of practice, tournaments and limited free time paid off. Walker has signed a volleyball scholarship with the University of Northwestern Ohio where she plans to study business administration and join the Air Force after graduation. Walker said that most of her favorite memories from high school involve sporting competitions and her teammates.

“When you play sports, especially more than one, it just takes up all of your time,” Walker said. “You quickly make close friendships and memories with your teammates because you’re with them so much. One of my favorite memories was going to a tournament in Panama City and going to Dave & Buster’s afterwards and playing arcade games for hours on end. Sometimes it’s the memories off the court that stick the most.”

Juggling two sports in high school taught Walker how to balance academics and other interests. She was awarded the 2020 Engineering Superlative in the Escambia High School Hall of Fame after spending four years in the engineering academy and maintaining her 4.5 GPA. While in the engineering academy, Walker was involved in the school’s robotics competitions and their NASA rover challenge. She served as the head driver and a build team captain. As Walker explained, the team comes together to build a rover and then travels to NASA at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL to compete.

“Picture the lunar roving vehicles that you see on the moon,” Walker explained. “We build our own moon buggies and take them to NASA to race them. Last year, I was the head driver for my team. NASA builds an intense course that simulates what it would actually be like to steer them on the moon. It’s really fun and teaches you so much about the STEM field.”

Walker was part of the NASA rover challenge since she was a sophomore. Last year, the Escambia High School team placed 5th out of 114 college and high school teams. Although COVID-19 cancelled her team’s trip to Huntsville to compete this year, Walker said she is still grateful for the experiences she had with the team.

In her free time, Walker enjoys skateboarding, playing with her dogs and spending time on the beach. She was also very active in several extracurriculars such as National Honor Society, Latin club, Rho Kappa, Mu Alpha Theta and anchor club.

“In anchor club, we volunteered with the local humane society and food pantry. I really liked making Valentine’s cards for veterans and small crafts and gifts to donate to retirement homes. It’s small stuff, but it can really cheer people up, and I love that,” Walker said.

Walker explained that she is most excited to meet her fellow volleyball teammates in Ohio: “With the team, they’re your automatic family. And I just know we’re going to be so close already, and I will have people to fall back on. I don’t have to worry about making friends right away, because I will already have some. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

She plans to follow in her parent’s footsteps and enlist as an officer in the Air Force after college graduation. Her father served for 30 years in the Air Force before retiring and her mother served seven years. She hopes that she can get a job in the Air Force that encapsulates her interests in the engineering realm as her selected university does not offer any programs for it. As she prepares to head off to college, we wish her the best of luck on her journey!

Katie Englemeyer, 22

University of West Florida

Katie performing at Single Fin Café in Waterboyz. Growing up, Kate Englemeyer would hear music in every inch of her house. She would hear her father playing guitar and her mother’s sweet voice from down the hall. Her parents did ministry for prisoners at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution and Century Correctional Institution when Englemeyer was little, so she would hear them practicing often. Her older sister enjoyed singing, playing guitar and songwriting, too.

“My family was musical when I was growing up, but I never took an interest until I was in fifth grade,” Englemeyer explained. “There was a fifth-grade strings program at my elementary school. I decided to give violin a try. When I was in middle school, I was in a guitar class. That’s when I got interested in playing guitar, singing and writing songs.”

Englemeyer dabbled in songwriting while at church music camp, too. Her final project in eighth grade was to write a song completely on her own. “After that, I realized that I wanted to keep doing it on my own. I loved it,” she said.

When she was just 15 years old, Englemeyer participated in the youth showcase of a local songwriting competition. Her songs stood out from the rest of the artists. Her music was more mellow and deep while her competitors were upbeat. She received first place for her original songs, which helped her gain the confidence to perform more.

“Most of my passion for music came from being able to write songs and put my thoughts into music. Songwriting is how I express myself,” Englemeyer said.

While studying music at UWF, she continued songwriting and performing at places and events all over Pensacola, such as Waterboyz, Drowsy Poet and Gallery Night. Englemeyer said that her music has folk and rock influences, but it’s all acoustic. The popular artist Ed Sheeran is a major inspiration for the sound of her music.

“I like Ed Sheeran because he’s able to just sing and play guitar, yet it sounds so complete,” Englemeyer said. “I like the simplicity of his music. It’s what I hope my music is or will be.”

Englemeyer’s love for the violin grew while she was in college. She had never taken violin lessons before. Her professor Leonid Yanovskiy is the only person she has ever taken lessons with. “He’s the concertmaster of the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra,” Englemeyer said. “It’s interesting seeing someone that’s your teacher being in that type of position, too. It was motivating.”

However, Englemeyer decided to pursue a degree in music education rather than music performance because she didn’t think she was at a professional level on the violin. “I didn’t fully realize how much I would enjoy teaching until I did my internships this past semester.”

For her internship, she did student teaching in orchestra class at Tate High School and Ransom Middle School, but she spent the majority of her time at the middle school. Englemeyer designed her own unit to teach the students material she didn’t learn until college. “I was really proud of that because it was my idea to teach them harder material,” Englemeyer said. “Even though they were only in middle school, they were able to handle the material. It was great.”

That’s when she realized that if she were to become an orchestra director, she could give even more students an upper hand in music education. Right after graduating from UWF, Englemeyer was hired to be an orchestra director for the Escambia County School District. She doesn’t know which schools she will be teaching at, but she thinks it will be multiple middle schools, which is her favorite age group to teach. Englemeyer plans to teach her students music history and to love the sound of classical music.

“I plan to teach them about the really famous composers and composers that aren’t so famous, too. I want them to actually listen to music like Mozart and Beethoven and learn to love that music,” She said. “I feel like I didn’t enjoy that type of music until college even though I played the violin for 10 years. It’s important to have that background so they could understand where the orchestra came from.”

Although Englemeyer will spend the majority of her days teaching, she plans to use her spare time to pursue her music career. She hopes to do professional quality recordings of her original songs and gain more fans of her music. She will also continue playing the violin and hopes to audition for a symphony.

Kendra Perkins, 22

University of West Florida

“I was a fan of space ever since I was little. I would like to combine cybersecurity with space operations. So, later on in my career, exploring a connection between cybersecurity and space operations would be incredible.” While many of us discover what careers we should pursue through trial and error, others recognize their path immediately. Kendra Perkins’ love for science materialized when she was in third grade. One afternoon, she caught the television series Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking. The curiosities of the unexplored outer space started Perkins’ path to a career in science.

Perkins is the oldest of one sister and grew up in Fort Lauderdale, FL. She kept herself busy with books. “With me always being at home looking for new things to do to keep my mind active, I got exposed to the science world,” Perkins said.

From there, Perkins trekked uncharted territory. Neither of her parents had a background in science, but Perkins was determined. She applied for a magnet school right out of elementary school. At New River Middle, she studied marine science for three years. She then transitioned to her next magnet school, Plantation High School, where she studied environmental science and Everglades restoration.

She gained more experience in environmental science through the Everglades Restoration Ambassadors (ERA) organization. Perkins served as treasurer for two years and president for three years. During her time with the ERA, she found that she enjoyed teaching science to others, and she later brought that skill with her to the University of West Florida.

Perkins discovered that cybersecurity was the field she wanted to pursue during her junior year’s Advanced Placement Capstone. Her topic was to find if public-key cryptography can successfully prevent the infringement of personal data online. Her project was inspired by the 2013 Target cyber breach, the second-largest breach reported by a U.S. retail store.

“I felt so bad for the people who had their credit card information stolen from them. People are victims of credit card fraud, viruses and phishing attacks all of the time, and a lot of it is due to a lack of awareness,” Perkins said. “People don’t deserve to have things that they worked hard for to be stolen by malicious attackers. The reason why I'm so passionate about it is I want to do what I can to help prevent the economic disasters that occur from cyber security attackers.”

Perkins took this passion a step further. After seeing how the Target attack affected 40 million shoppers, Perkins wanted to use her knowledge on a national level, so she chose to take the military route. Perkins found her way to UWF because at the time UWF was the only public, in-state university with cybersecurity bachelor’s and master’s programs as well as an Air Force ROTC program.

At UWF, she served as either president, secretary or treasurer for more than 15 organizations while pursuing a degree in cybersecurity. Perkins is the first in her family to finish college and join the military. Perkins said that her time in the Air Force Cadet Club, which she was secretary of for two years, helped her become a better public speaker and leader. The cadet club is associated with the Air Force ROTC program.

“I visited about nine high schools in the area recruiting for the Air Force program, and on campus, I helped with recruiting, too. That was a very awesome experience,” Perkins said. “Being able to see that you touched someone and later on they decided to take your advice and try it out, is really rewarding.”

Perkins said that she benefited greatly from ROTC’s professional development opportunities. She was one of the 50 students selected from the Army and Air Force ROTC programs from across the country to participate in the month-long Air Force Institute of Technology program.

“We learned about cybersecurity for a month. I really enjoyed that program because we learned about things that I already knew from my program and also stuff that I hadn't learned about,” Perkins said. “It was an awesome experience. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if it weren’t for the Air Force ROTC.”

Perkins helped create lesson plans for future students as a UWF Center for Cybersecurity ambassador in her last semester. “I would love to teach little kids about cybersecurity, come up with fun, interactive ways for them to learn how important cybersecurity is because they are the next generation,” Perkins said. “So I would definitely say that the cybersecurity ambassadors are one thing that I cherish.”

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, Perkins wasn’t able to spend time teaching students. However, she was able to be a judge on a drone competition for local high schools. “They had to program their drone to follow instructions to complete the tasks, which is amazing because they are combining robotics and programming—which is very important to learn at a young age,” Perkins said. “It was really exciting to see.”

Now that Perkins has received her bachelor’s in cybersecurity and commissioned into the Air Force as a second lieutenant, she is going to technical school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, MS, and pursuing her master’s in cybersecurity online from UWF. Although Perkins is very excited to begin her career in cybersecurity, she still hopes to work with her first passion: space.

“I was a fan of space ever since I was little. I would like to combine cybersecurity with space operations. So, later on in my career, exploring a connection between cybersecurity and space operations would be incredible,” Perkins said. “Combining two passions that I have had since I was little into one is my dream.”

Kira Burch, 21

George Stone Technical College

Kira Burch has always set her goals sky high. Aviation is in her blood. Her great grandfather was a waist gunner in World War II, her father was in the Air Force and her brother is a helicopter mechanic. She loved to watch the Blue Angels soar above her home. While others decorated their rooms with stuffed toys and trinkets, Burch had model planes and pictures of planes on her walls.

So, naturally, Burch dreamed of joining the military to be a helicopter pilot. Her only sibling, Devin Burch, joined the Navy her junior year of high school. “I wanted to follow my brother’s footsteps, so I decided I wanted to join the military,” Burch said.

Shortly after graduating from Escambia High School, Burch had to change her plans. She couldn’t join the military due to health issues. “For a short period of time, it bothered me. I wish that I would have been able to get in,” Burch said. “But then, I started exploring other paths.”

When she came across the Aviation Maintenance Program at George Stone Technical College, her gears started going. “I figured that if I can’t fly them, I might as well work on them,” Burch said.

The Aviation Maintenance Program is two years and is Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified. Since the program is FAA certified, Burch can go anywhere in the world to work on an aircraft. Students with an A&P license have gone to work at ST Engineering, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The average student will make about $40,000 a year after graduating.

Burch knew that aviation maintenance is a male dominated field and that her classmates were predominantly male, but she had no idea that she would be the first woman to graduate from George Stone with an A&P license.

“Honestly, I am not one of those people that are like ‘Give me a plaque,’ but I was pretty excited to be the first female mechanic to graduate from the school,” Burch said. “It was empowering.”

Even though many women like Burch have interests in the aviation field, few women work in it. The 2019 Women in Aviation: A Workforce Report found that women make up less than 10 percent of pilots, maintenance technicians, mechanics and airline executives. Burch thinks that the reason few women are in this field is not because they aren’t capable but because of the lack of female representation.

“Whenever high schoolers come to George Stone, I can see that some people are interested in the career field, but I can also see their hesitation,” Burch said. “I think they’re just intimidated by the lack of female influence in aviation. There are no females in that program. They just see guys in the program. So they’re like, ‘I’ll just stay back.’ I think that any female that is interested should pursue it anyway. Just because you’re a female, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”

Burch has never felt intimidated by societal gender norms. Her dad taught her how to work on cars and to be independent at a young age. “My mentality has always been ‘If you can do it, I can do it better than you.’ I always wanted to try something that guys could do,” Burch said. “That wasn’t always a good thing because I got injured a lot, but I always had that mentality even when I was young.”

Before Burch started the program at George Stone, she was told there would be three to four women in the program with her. There was only one other woman. The two became fast friends, but the other student left the program. So, it was just Burch and 25 men each class.

“Being the only female is definitely different. Once you get comfortable with the people you’re around, it’s just second nature,” Burch said.

Now that Burch has her A&P license, she hopes to help encourage other women to pursue a career in aviation and complete the program at George Stone. “I want to help them see that just because it’s a male dominant profession doesn’t mean a female cannot do it,” Burch said. “I’ve worked at ST Engineering for over a year and a half now. I work with so many men every day, and there are maybe five or six female mechanics out there including me. We’re doing the same hard work that all the other guys are. They can pursue anything they set their mind to.”

Burch started working at ST Engineering almost halfway through her program at George Stone. One of her favorite projects she got to do while working there was removing an engine off of a Boeing 757. “Not a lot of people get the chance to do it because usually you have a certain crew that gets to do it. I wasn’t doing anything, so I just sort of pushed my way into helping,” Burch explained. “It’s going to look really pretty on my resume, too.”

Burch plans to continue working at ST Engineering for a couple of years. Her new dream is to do military contracting somewhere. When asked what her advice for the women who follow her footsteps at George Stone would be she said, “No matter what you do—focus. Do not give up.”


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