Skip to main content

“I’m like is this real,” reflections of the Elise Eberwein Scholarship Recipient, Riley Thompson

Recently, an intimate celebration took place to honor and highlight the accomplishments and future in aviation of Piedmont’s very own, Riley Thompson. Riley was selected as one of the first-ever recipients of the Elise Eberwein American Airlines Cadet Academy (AACA) Pilot Scholarship. 

The Elise Eberwein American Airlines Cadet Academy Pilot Scholarship was established to honor the legacy of former American Executive Elise Eberwein to provide financial support to team members from underrepresented communities, pursuing an aviation career as a pilot.  

Riley currently works in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a Senior Administrative Support Specialist supporting the Southeast ground handling team but in less than 4 months she will relocate to Dallas, Texas to embark on the beginning of her career to becoming a commercial airline pilot.  

Heather Garboden, SVP of American Eagle and Cargo, who leads the team that manages the Cadet Academy, shares that the scholarship committee received hundreds of applications from a diverse pool of talented individuals seeking to pursue their dreams of becoming pilots. 

“We were incredibly impressed by the passion, dedication, and potential demonstrated by all of the applicants,” said Heather. “Selecting just two winners was a very difficult decision, but with Riley we landed on an individual that exemplifies the very qualities we were looking for: a thirst for learning, a strong work ethic, and the potential to excel in a demanding program.” 

Riley is not new to the skies. While not a requirement for the scholarship, she had already begun her journey in flight training, albeit part-time, before applying for the scholarship. Fast forward to today, she is now preparing to immerse herself in flight training and hour building as she works to become a full-time pilot. 

Jess Ast, Senior Manager AACA Operations Pilot Recruiting & Development, led the celebration for Riley in Charlotte sharing the attributes that made her stand out from the other candidates applying for this scholarship. “Having grit and tenacity separated Riley from the rest of the applicants. Out of 440 applications she was the only one to create a packet on her characteristics for this scholarship.”

In a room filled with Riley’s family, friends, mentors and colleagues, Jess shared a quote from Riley that was written in her application packet, “I love waking up early to fly before work. This scholarship is the next step to becoming the first commercial pilot in my family. Being surrounded by strong leaders, and serving under a female station director has given me a new perspective on female leadership, shared Riley. And supporting the female role in a male dominated occupation speaks to her passion for aviation,” explained Jess.

Jess was accompanied with several other leaders from American Airlines and Piedmont, involved in Riley’s Scholarship process. They each took the time to reflect on how Riley exudes the meaning of the Elise Eberwein Scholarship.

  • Paul Pierre, Pilot, First Officer B777, spoke on how Riley struck him with the way she carried herself knowing she would be a pilot. “She came in with the right attitude, while having a full-time job. I asked her what happened if you don’t get the scholarship?” Riley responded, “If I don’t get it, it’ll just delay the inevitable that I will still become a pilot.” 

“Riley displays the five keys to success: inspiration, aspiration, determination, discipline, opportunity. She is the type of candidate this scholarship was made for. Elise would be very proud of you if she was still here,” said Paul. 

  • Tricia Thompson had two roles at the celebration: Ground Handling Recruiting Manager and the proud title of Mom, sharing, “I am pleased to talk about my greatest joy in life, my daughter Riley. Aspiring to be the first commercial pilot in our family is a huge achievement in the making.” Tricia thanked several Piedmont leaders who have made an impact in Riley’s career journey sharing, “Riley is a stronger woman today because of these leaders being a role model in her life. Their unwavering support and encouragement in her beliefs instilled in her confidence to serve her in her future endeavors. “She also acknowledged American for investing in young pilots to fuel their dreams and aspirations. 

Closing remarks were made by the honoree herself, Riley Thompson, sharing her gratitude for those that helped mold her into this upcoming position. “Every day I wake up and I’m like is this real? This is a life changing opportunity, and I am truly grateful. Two years ago, I interviewed as an assistant to Aylin fresh out of college. This scholarship will relieve part of the immense financial responsibility that comes with flight school and will allow me to completely immerse myself in my studies and training.” 

So many people played a part in the celebration of Riley and is a reflection that shows the impact Piedmont leaders have on their team members and what it truly means to be Piedmont Proud. 

The Elise Eberwein American Airlines Cadet Academy Scholarship is a 10-year initiative, awarding two scholarships valued at $50,000 each, annually. American team members who meet the eligibility requirements and have a passion for aviation are encouraged to consider applying for the next scholarship cycle, scheduled to open sometime during the fourth quarter of 2024.