Breaking down barriers: Erin Pugh is aerospace’s finest

(Sara Heymann / Daily Trojan)

Erin Pugh knows she’s a rarity. Not only is she the single Black woman on USC’s AeroDesign Team, but the Chicago native’s love for complex calculations and manga comics also set her apart. 

Pugh found her niche in ADT and will serve as the team’s landing gear captain for the 2020-21 school year, stepping into the role of a leader.  But she didn’t always find that her peers understood her passions and interests. Her hobbies and her involvement in aerospace aren’t run-of-the-mill for her Chicago friend group.

 “I go to the comic book club, I read comics, I watch anime, I read mangas,” said Pugh, a third-year student majoring in mathematics and aerospace, detailing her nerdiness. While her love for Japanese novelties are regular pastimes to many, it isn’t for many of her hometown peers. Questions of “Who’s your favorite rapper?” or  “Who’s your favorite basketball player?” are what is traded among her friends.

 “It was more beat into our brains that you should like Black people things,” Pugh said. She was called  “nerdy” or a “know-it-all” for her love of planes. “Planes are not Black people things.” 

Luckily, in coming to USC and joining the AeroDesign Team in Fall 2018, Pugh found an opportunity to express her affinity for STEM with like-minded students who also knew the difference between a Boeing 747, 737 MAX and a 777 aircraft. 

In short, the team builds model airplanes according to a set of rules and guidelines by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and participates in the annual AIAA Design/Build/Fly competition. 

On the team, Pugh focuses her energy on the payloads committee. She and other members build out the carrying capacity of an aircraft, aligning directly with her goal of working at Boeing once she graduates. 

But beyond getting her hands dirty with wood, foam and plastic — common materials used in making model aircrafts — and winning the “Best Report” award in 2019’s competition, Pugh has found her home in the team.

“It’s like a family type of thing,” Pugh said. “You find people that are like you, but they’re from different backgrounds.”

The comfort Pugh found in ADT is far from her early experiences as a Trojan. Transferring from Governor State University, a smaller public school located 40 miles south of Chicago, to USC in 2018 was no small feat.

“I was the smartest person at my college — [I] had to be,” Pugh said, comparing USC to GSU — all while touting that she graduated from high school at 16. “You can’t give GSU effort at USC … [When] a paper is due, I can’t wait until the night before to do it.”

Sophomore Erin Pugh and the AeroDesign Team, which builds model airplanes, won the Best Report award in a 2019 national competition. (Photo courtesy of Erin Pugh)

And it’s no surprise the campus climate was also different from her native Chi-town. 

“I’m from Chicago, where it’s all Black,” Pugh said. “The South Side. Oh my God, it was a cultural shock.” 

The differences in rigor and culture aren’t the only challenges she faced; finding her footing and support proved just as difficult. 

“At my first college I had somebody that was a mentor to me,” Pugh said. “[They] really pushed me to do aerospace and get out of that college and come to USC.”

But upon arrival, she struggled in the math department as she sought a double major in math and aerospace engineering, lacking the same support she had previously received.

“[At first I was] like, ‘Oh yeah, I could definitely do this,’” Pugh said. “But then it was kind of discouraging to see that nobody in the math department was really trying to catch me and put me under their wing — [the] type of thing that I was used to.” 

Finally mustering up the courage, Pugh started to take aerospace-focused classes where she met her new-found mentor and ADT faculty adviser Charles Radovich, an associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering practice. As Pugh’s professor for “Introduction to Aerospace Engineering,” Radovich pointed Pugh in the right direction, encouraging her to participate in more STEM-related extracurriculars. 

“[Radovich] basically kept me under his wing and is still helping me to this day to try to find internships [and] try to do more in Viterbi,” Pugh said.

Radovich, who studied aerospace engineering at USC and graduated in 2002, described himself as a candid professor. 

“I’m not here to be friends, but I want to give [my students] honest feedback,” Radovich said. “I really feel like I’m here to make them good engineers.” 

Part of this honesty comes from his candid conversations with students about how he struggled as an undergrad at USC, resonating directly with Pugh’s experience. 

“I let them know I struggled or how I used to sit in Leavey Library for a lot of hours until I figured out how to do this,” Radovich said. “It didn’t just come naturally. But I had to put in work.”

Radovich’s mentorship also helped Pugh gather a sense of belonging in her studies. With USC’s Black population sitting at 5% and a 2019 study published in the Education Researcher journal reporting Black and Latinx college students transferring or dropping out of STEM programs at higher rates than their white peers, it was affirming advice. 

“You deserve to be here, and there’s not a lot of people that look like you who are here,” Pugh said Radovich told her. In her early ADT days, she stood out, looking very different from some of her plane-loving peers. 

“I usually wear my big hair and makeup,” Pugh said. “And I’m real cute, period … I remember coming to ADT and one of the freshmen was like, ‘Are you supposed to be here? Are you lost?’”

The ‘Othering’ Pugh experienced early at USC is not a unique one for many Black women in STEM. USC alumna Avri Parker remembers she, too, felt like an outsider in her computer science classes. 

Coming to USC in 2015 as a computer science and business administration major, Parker knew her coursework would be challenging. Though she’d taken computer science classes in high school, Viterbi School of Engineering’s classrooms were a new beast; Parker described her classes as “siloed,” with little opportunities for collaborative work and lacking women and people of color. 

“It was just hard in all ways,” Parker said. “There’s no socializing, there’s no Black people, there’s barely any women, and it was just difficult as fuck.”

Lacking a sense of community in her classes, Parker leaned on USC’s National Society of Black Engineers for support. 

“That was the only time we could see anybody who looked like [ourselves],” she said, speaking of their general body meetings or the times they would study collaboratively.

The student group aims to foster community among Black engineers, traveling to annual conferences, hosting career-related events and even fundraising parties.

“No matter if you were CS or not, you were probably one of very few [Black people] in your major,” said Parker, who served as the organization’s president. “I think that’s why we were all so close to each other. We were really all we had.”

Just as Parker found comradery in NSBE, Pugh found a comrade in her classes: Mikell Myers, a sophomore majoring in aerospace engineering and the other Black student in ADT.

“You know when it’s only one Black person in the classroom you go sit by them?” Pugh said of their first encounter. “That’s how it was when I first met him.” 

The two initially bonded over inside jokes relating to “urban grit,” as Myers, the Baltimore native, described it. Myers called Pugh an “incognito nerd,” raved about her ever-present smile and how he looks to her as someone who’s unafraid to be themselves no matter the setting. 

“[Pugh’s] presence [in ADT] is a plus because she’s really taking a step,” said Myers, speaking on Pugh’s status as the only Black woman on the team. “She’s unapologetically herself.”

And ever since they met in their major’s introductory course, Myers and Pugh have served as each other’s support systems.

But of all the connections and relationships Pugh made in her aerospace pursuits, one of the most profound is hers with her father, a trained engineer. For a while, Pugh didn’t speak to her dad after her parents’ divorce but remembers times when they bonded over the shared passion. 

“I would sit there and watch him fix cars in our garage … We used to play basketball every Sunday,” she said. Pugh becomes annoyed when she’s reminded that, though their relationship may not be perfect, he “blessed [her] with the genes of having a photographic memory.” 

Despite their rocky relationship, Pugh knows he’s proud of her because of their shared love for engineering and desires to make amends. 

“My grandma tells me he’s so proud of me because [I] took on something that he did,’” Pugh said. “I wish I could hopefully have a better relationship with him now that I’m about to graduate.”

Graduating in either 2021 or 2022 depending on the courses she’ll take over the next few semesters, Pugh has her eyes set on working at Boeing or at another aircraft manufacturing company who will fund her secondary education. 

Outside of her professional ambitions, Pugh finds it important to guarantee her future children an even better reality than her own. 

“I want to make sure that I’m financially stable enough to basically be Batman,” Pugh said. “I want to be like rich rich, so then my kids have to want for nothing.” 

But along with her ambitions comes the harsh reality of being a woman of color in STEM. With Black women only earning 62% of white men’s salary in STEM industries, according to the Pew Research Center, her financial woes are founded. 

“I’m, one, a woman and, two, I’m Black,” Pugh said. “So my pay might be lower than someone who graduated with a bachelor’s and is doing the same job as me, but is white and a man.”

Despite the sobering truth for many Black women in her industry, Pugh is excited for what lies ahead in her career. Looking towards the future she says: “God, please let me own my own airline and own my own aerospace company.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article omitted one of Pugh’s majors and incorrectly stated her year. The article was updated at 10:05 a.m. to reflect the change. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.