Air Force General Emphasizes Exploring Opportunities

“I see myself as this kid from Jersey who had a love for writing and understood a little bit about science and found myself being an engineer, and joining the air force. Here I am 42 years later doing amazing things in my life that I never thought I would do. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be the third woman ever to be a four star general in the Air Force.”

That’s what retired U.S. Air Force, four-star General Ellen Pawlikowski said during a talk to the Loyola Marymount University community titled “The Only Woman in the Room,” delivered as part of the LMU Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering’s Seaver Spotlight series in October 2019. She walked the audience through her life’s journey, emphasizing the importance of being open to opportunities.

“The concept of the whole person is really important and that’s what I love about LMU,” said Pawlikowski, whose educational background is in chemical engineering. “I learned that you can’t be a good officer or engineer if you don’t have that whole person mentality. You have to have that balance. It’s not always easy.”

According to the Society of Women Engineers, as of 2019 only 13 percent of all engineers in the workforce are female; the percentage is even less for chemical engineers. Pawlikowski stated how few women engineers she encountered in proportion to males in her work experience, and the importance of not only gender diversity, but diversity as a whole. “The value of diversity comes from the variety of thoughts and needs that ultimately benefit everyone,” said Pawlikowski.

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Retired U.S. Air Force, four-star General Ellen Pawlikowski speaking to LMU audience.

“Inspiration is the first word that comes to mind when talking about General Pawlikowski due to her intelligence, persistence, and success in serving the United States of America,” said Faith Springborn, a sophomore engineering major. “Her fearlessness and lifelong effort in service to our country can be seen not only in her impressive résumé, but in how she carries herself.”

Pawlikowski credited her parents as influencing her life the most. “My mom instilled in us the idea not to be afraid to do what you want to do.” This childhood value inspired and created the foundation for her extensive career. She graduated from the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s chemical engineering and ROTC programs. In 1981, she earned her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and less than a year later entered active duty at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, California.

“You never know what life is going to throw at you and what opportunities are going to present itself,” said Pawlikowski. “You just never know when you’re going to have the opportunity to grasp an exciting challenge. And it’s these types of challenges that kept me going.”

Over the course of about four decades, she held a number of leadership positions including deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, and most recently commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center. President Barack Obama nominated Pawlikowski to the rank of general. On March 27, 2015, the U.S. Senate confirmed her promotion and she assumed command of the Air Force Material Command.

Following her retirement from the Air Force in 2018, Pawlikowski joined the board of directors for Raytheon. Her goal after retirement is to hold positions in the fields she loves and have more time for her family and personal life.

“It’s an adventure that never ends because even today I’m doing really cool stuff,” said Pawlikowski.

Reporter Mason Handa is a sophomore communications major and theatre arts minor.