BY KRISTI FISH | MIRROR REPORTER — Girls don’t have to be the best at what they do in order to be worthy of their endeavors. They are allowed to just be average.
At least, that’s what Zara Rutherford, a 19-year-old Belgian-British pilot and the youngest woman to fly solo around the world, wants them to know.
On March 23, Gateway Middle School students who are part of the Ruling Our Experiences (ROX) program were able to listen to Rutherford as she spoke about her experience circumnavigating the globe in 155 days – alone.
“I’m by no means an amazing pilot at all. I’m kind of average, and the thing that helped me was kind of having this ‘yeah, let’s do this’ attitude,” Rutherford said. “I have the license for it. I’m a bit scared, but with patience and the right forecast, it’s safe to do.”
Rutherford, whose parents were pilots, had dreams when she was younger about being a pilot one day, but her friends weren’t on the same path. They weren’t into flying, she said, but she eventually realized she didn’t have to have the same interests as them. She pursued flying as a hobby and potential career, deciding during her senior year to actually circle the world.
“It was only once I was in my senior year of high school that I realized I could actually do this,” Rutherford said. “I was going to do something crazy, something kind of cool, and took a gap year to fly around the world.”
Rutherford had to secure a plane and sponsorships and handle mounds of paperwork, such as special licensure, visas, flight permits and more.
When students from the class were able to ask her questions, they wanted to know what motivated her to go through with everything and if she ever faced any doubts because of her gender.
Rutherford explained that, like anyone, she was good at talking herself out of things, believing she wasn’t good enough and therefore shouldn’t try. She learned that telling herself it wasn’t worth it to try because it wouldn’t work out just guaranteed that it definitely wouldn’t work out. She had given up on plenty of things in the past, but she wanted to actually make this one happen.
“I was really quite set on it. I emailed 500 companies in the beginning to try and get sponsorships, and they all said no,” Rutherford said. “You really do have to keep going, keep trying. If it doesn’t work out, at least you tried, and I think that’s the most important thing.”
Rutherford’s resolve despite the challenges was something Gateway’s counselor Brooke Potts hoped the girls would take away from the encounter.
“I think, for the girls, it was good for them to hear her say she reached out to 500 companies and got all ‘nos,’ and she persevered and kept going,” Potts said. “I think it’s important for kids to learn and see resilience because I think that’s something they all struggle with at this age.”
Potts helped institute the ROX program at Gateway and meets with the girls once a week, speaking with them about empowerment, body image, self-esteem, dealing with conflict and more.
“I hope they know that they can do anything,” Potts said. “Their gender should not get in the way of their hopes and dreams. Whatever they want to do, they can make it happen.”
For Rutherford, she took notice of the lack of women in her training and in the field, but her gender never felt like a barrier.
“Thankfully, for me, in person I’ve never suffered any obvious discrimination when it comes to flying. I never saw other female pilots when I was training, but I wasn’t treated any differently,” Rutherford said. “Online, however, that was different. When I was flying around the world, I started getting a lot of criticism online and a lot of it was basically because of my gender, which is kind of frustrating.”
Rutherford did her best to ignore the sexist criticisms and continued on her record-breaking journey. She was fueled, however, to help motivate younger girls who might need that little push to pursue flying.
“Right now, I think only 5 percent of international pilots are women, which is a shame because it’s a pretty cool career,” Rutherford said. “I want to help reach younger girls if they’re interested, to kind of give it a shot and do something crazy, do something different.”
Rutherford’s encouragement of the girls in ROX is what Potts was hoping to see. She wanted them to speak with a young woman they could look up to but also relate to and be motivated by.
“I think they probably had a hard time wrapping their heads around what that was going to look like, but I think they were excited,” Potts said. “It was neat, and I think they appreciated that she’s young, too.”
The girls in ROX were able to speak with Rutherford because of Michael Horlick and his connection with Gateway social studies teacher Mandie Bentz.
Horlick has funded several of projects Bentz has posted to her DonorsChoose profile. He had the chance to speak with Rutherford when she was in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and asked questions from Bentz’s students.
The two then worked directly with Rutherford to set up a Zoom call with the girls in ROX, as Bentz knew it was a great opportunity for them.
“Part of the program is to have a female guest speaker in just to talk about the barriers that they may have had to overcome to get into their career,” Potts said. “For the girls, it’s nice to see someone outside of our school that’s a strong female leader and what it took to get there.”
Rutherford, who plans to go to university this fall, will continue her flying this summer. Her adventures are captured on YouTube and on her website, flyzolo.com.