Kate Hendl is a freshman at Boston University's College of General Studies who is beginning her journey in joining the U.S Air Force. We got a chance to learn all about her experience in the program and her time as a woman in a male-dominated field.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What are you studying here at Boston University?
A: I am a freshman here at Boston University and I am in the College of General Studies, which focuses on liberal arts and writing and such! I am going to be majoring in chemistry, so that is very exciting. I used to want to major in Biology, but I am planning on going into the Air Force and they don’t have as many Biology related jobs, so that is why I chose chemistry. I am honestly really happy I did because I am really enjoying it so far. Although Intro to Chem is not fun, I am getting through it!
Q: What do you spend your time doing outside of your classes?
A: I am in the Air Force ROTC Program! BU is the host school for the Air Force and we have cadets from all different surrounding schools.
Q: How much of your time does that take up? What does a typical week look like?
A: We have physical training — we call it PT — on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, but right now with COVID-19 it is only one of those days. We also have a 1 credit 45 minute class about heritage and the Air Force. We also have something called Lead Lab, or Leadership Lab, and that is about 2 hours where we learn things like drill, marching, and expeditionary things. Some of those things include what to do on an Air Force base or in active duty or preparing for field training which is an evaluation we eventually do.
Q: Did you do anything Air Force-related in High School? What drew you to the Air Force originally?
A: I actually didn’t do anything Air Force-related in High School. I didn’t think that I wanted to do it, but in my Junior year I was talking to my uncle (he was in the Air Force) and both he and my grandfather had served for many years. I had always thought of it as just something that they did, but then I was talking to him more and it began to sound really interesting. I realized I could do a STEM career field, like science, which sounded amazing. It just became something I discovered and then went for.
Q: What has your experience been like as a woman in the Air Force? I know that the Military and Air Force historically have been very male-dominated so what has been your experience?
A: Actually, day to day it is really not that different and I don’t feel any animosity towards me — nobody seems to think any less of me. I am not the only one — it is about 20% women — so there is a good mixture. The biggest thing I really feel is the difference in the physical training. My body is not very strong — I am not a bodybuilder or anything — so the push-ups have been really hard for me! Overall, people are really nice about it and so much of the time it is just me getting into my own head. Sometimes, I tend to think people are judging me or thinking less of me sometimes because of my physical fitness.
Q: Do other women around you seem to have a similar experience?
A: Yeah, I think some of them do. Some of them definitely have more practice with an organized sport or team exercise environment. Whereas, I grew up riding horses and that wasn’t necessarily very physical.
Q: How do you find that impacts your ability to perform in the Air Force on a daily basis? Do you find that limiting you or limiting others?
A: Overall, everyone is very supportive of whatever level you are at like I said because there are people at all different levels, male and female. But we did an obstacle course recently and I felt like I was getting in my own head that I thought people were thinking I was holding us back as a team. I was worried that they thought I was the weak link. I got very defensive about that because I wanted to prove: “No, I can do this.” And I can, but at the same time, I don’t have the same physical prowess that some of the men have.
Q: What are the uniforms like in the Air Force?
A: They are very baggy and when I was being fitted for them it was not good. I am very tall and thin and they are all either too short or too baggy. It was such a long process and I felt kind of embarrassed about it. We also have to meet certain hair standards. Our hair has to be in a really tight bun and we would always joke that we looked like eggs because our hair had to be so tight back! But they actually just recently changed it so you can have two braids, two French braids, or a ponytail which has been really nice because now I don’t have to stress about my hair falling out! That was such a big thing. The guys always just had to cut their hair and I constantly had to be worried about my hair falling out during training when I was also worried about doing the drill correctly.
Q: If you could say something to people who feel held back about some component of the occupation they are thinking of pursuing, what would you say to them?
A: There have been so many women before us who have done this. There are so many people who have succeeded. There are not many things women haven’t done. I mean, obviously, we need to populate certain fields more and we are working towards it, but for the most part, women have access to any occupation. So I would say find someone who has done it before you, maybe not even that same thing but something similar, and see what they did to accomplish that. Also, just ignore the pressure if you can! That is a big problem I have experienced. I sometimes think they think of me as a girl, but instead, I just have to say “you know what? Yeah, I’m a girl, but that doesn’t mean anything negative. I am just going to show up as the best version of myself.”