Life imitates art at UND Aerospace

UND student pilot Faiza Ashraf hosts – and relates to – Willow Willpower, a children’s book character inspiring young people to fly high

Faiza Ashraf, a UND junior majoring in Commercial Aviation and Aviation Management, holds Willow Willpower in the offices of the Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at UND. Willow Willpower is a handcrafted, one-of-a-kind doll which is being hosted by female pilots as she travels around the world. Photo courtesy of Faiza Ashraf.

There’s a little bit of Willow Willpower in all of us, but an awful lot in Faiza Ashraf, a UND Odegard School of Aerospace Studies student and aspiring airline pilot.

Last week, Ashraf held the Willow Willpower doll – there’s only one; she was handcrafted by a dollmaker in Germany, and she has traveled around the world with female pilots, inspiring young people to pursue their dreams – on her lap as she read from “Willow Willpower,” a children’s book about the fictional character. Ashraf’s audience was a group of rapt 5- and 6-year-olds at the University Children’s Learning Center at UND.

“ ‘But Mom, can I really become a pilot and fly to all these wonderful places around the world?’ ” Ashraf read, quoting and pointing to Willow in the picture book. Answers Willow’s mom, “Willow, if you really want to, you can achieve anything with willpower and belief.’ “

Ashraf put the book down. “Let’s all say it together, boys and girls: With willpower and belief, you can achieve anything.”

Just ask Ashraf, a Bangladesh native who is will-powering and believing herself toward achieving her own pilot’s dream.

Last week, UND junior Faiza Ashraf brought the Willow Willpower doll and read from the children’s picturebook, “Willow Willpower” by Sarah Cannata, to children at the University Children’s Learning Center at UND. In the book, Willow is encouraged to become a pilot, and young people everywhere are encouraged to follow their dreams. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Willow’s Flight Challenge

In 2019, the publisher of “Willow Willpower” launched a Flight Challenge around the book and the character of Willow. The challenge asked female pilots to host and fly with the book-based doll for a time. This would both call attention to the dearth of female pilots — in 2018, the proportion of female pilots was only about 5 percent, and the women’s share of new commercial airline licenses was below 3 percent, the BBC reported – and inspire more girls to consider learning to fly, organizers hoped.

Since then, Willow has been in France, Germany, China, the United States and the African countries of Chad, Mali and Niger, among other places.

Now, she’s in North Dakota, where Ashraf had caught wind of the project some months ago and emailed the coordinator – a retired female pilot for the French Navy – to invite Willow to visit.

“And I’m the first student pilot she has flown with,” Ashraf said in an interview, “because everyone before me who flew with her was an actual commercial airline pilot. So I thought that was very cool.”

Elizabeth Bjerke, associate dean and professor at the Odegard School, agreed. Furthermore, “we have seen significant increases in our female aviation student population by engaging in creative outreach with inspiring role models such as Faiza,” Bjerke said. “So when Faiza told us that she would be hosting Willow at UND, we were all onboard to help her out. We are also thankful that UCLC was open to allowing Faiza and Willow to share their stories with them.”

Willow has been in North Dakota since February. In that time, Ashraf has flown with her in UND aircraft, posed with her by those aircraft and in UND aviation facilities, and brought her to “Willow Willpower” book readings, such as the one at the UCLC.

And when she reads to children about Willow’s determination to learn to fly, Ashraf sees herself. “Personally, I really struggled to come to UND to become a pilot,” Ashraf said.

“So when I heard about WIllow and the project’s goal of motivating young people to become pilots, I thought, ‘I’d like to help.’ I could really relate to Willow’s dream of flying.”

Faiza Ashraf stands with Pierce Brackett, a Certified Flight Instructor at UND, and WIllow Willpower at the close of what was Willow’s first UND flight. Faiza is the first student pilot to have hosted Willow in the handcrafted doll’s travels around the world. Photo courtesy of Faiza Ashraf.

Cultural barriers

Ever since she was a girl, Ashraf has loved airplanes, she said. That feeling eventually inspired her to become a pilot.

But “I come from Bangladesh,” Ashraf noted. “And obviously, it’s a developing country, and because of the culture there, it’s really hard for females to go into aviation. There are very, very few woman pilots.”

That meant Ashraf had few role models, and not much support – including, at first, from her parents. “When I told my parents that I want to do something with aviation, they wanted me to be an aerospace engineer,” she said with a laugh. Doctor, yes; engineer, yes; pilot? No, Mom and Dad initially said.

But both eventually changed their minds. Since then, “they’ve been extremely supportive throughout all of my time here at UND, and now, they’re very, very proud of me,” Ashraf said.

Speaking of UND, Ashraf first learned about the University online.

“I just searched on ‘best aviation school in the world,’ and UND popped up. That’s how I first heard about it, and why I applied,” she said.

She’s never regretted it: “When I came here, I was a little worried, because North Dakota has a reputation as being in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve lived in the city all of my life,” she said.

“But once I got here, all of professors and my flight instructors were really great. And they’ve never made me feel like I was any less because I was a female.” Modern aviation is a field where skill matters more than anything else, so the only external or internal pressure Ashraf feels is to excel: “I study before every flight, I do everything I’m supposed to do and then some,” she said, in order to become the best pilot she can be.

That hard work has paid off, as Ashraf, a junior, now is only one flight lesson away from getting her commercial pilot certificate. After graduation, she hopes to work as a Certified Flight Instructor for the University to build up her cockpit hours, then as a corporate or regional-airline pilot enroute to her ultimate goal of flying for a major carrier.

Just like Willow

Back to the UCLC for a moment, where “Miss Faiza,” as UCLC Director Gwen Puckett introduced her to the children, talked with the youngsters about flying. Not all of the discussion was on topic — “I’m going to the dentist later,” one young man declared — but for the most part, the Willow doll as well as Ashraf’s tales of flying airplanes at UND were met by wide eyes, big smiles and enthusiastic oohs and ahhs.

“We’ll leave this book about Willow Willpower here at the Center, so you can read it anytime,” Ashraf said.

“And remember, if you really want to, you can become an aviator, too. Just like Willow. And me.”

*   *   *

Editor’s note: Next week, a video following Faiza Ashraf as she takes Willow Willpower to different UND Aerospace facilities will premiere on the Odegard School of Aerospace Science’s channel. Once the video has been posted, viewers will be able to watch it here.