Rachelle Strong, shown here in front of a model of the 777X, is the Flight Deck Chief Engineer at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Rachelle Strong, shown here in front of a model of the 777X, is the Flight Deck Chief Engineer at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Rachelle Strong, shown here in front of a model of the 777X, is the Flight Deck Chief Engineer at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. (Photo: Rachelle Strong)

Embry-Riddle Degrees and Hard Work Fuel a Remarkable Trajectory of Success

Story by Jon O'Neill
Jon O'Neill

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One Eagle alumna’s extraordinary journey as a stellar student, aviation leader, wife and mother shows that you can, indeed, have it all.

Determination, a peerless work ethic and three degrees from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University have helped Rachelle Strong (11, 15, 20) build a career without compromise.

As a Flight Deck Chief Engineer at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Rachelle has leveraged her trio of degrees—a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering, an M.S. in Project Management and a Ph.D. in Aviation Safety & Human Factors—to become a leader at the global aerospace giant, an achievement that highlights her abilities as an engineer, pilot, manager and human factors specialist.

“Attending Embry-Riddle allowed me to do everything I wanted to do, and that was a game changer,” Rachelle said. “I was able to get all of my degrees while also learning how to fly airplanes, teaching people to fly airplanes, getting married, becoming a mother and having a career.”

An Aviation Adventure Begins Early

Rachelle’s journey to Embry-Riddle and then on to Boeing started in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she grew up and graduated from Rockford High School. Initially, her interest in aviation was sparked when one of her cousins married the daughter of Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot Al Worden.

“Although he didn’t flaunt it, we all knew he had been to the moon, and that was one of the early intros to the industry that I had,” Rachelle said. “He even came to speak at our AIAA event during my last semester of undergrad at Embry-Riddle to tell stories of his time at NASA, which was a really special experience.”

Rachelle was 13 when the Columbia Space Shuttle accident happened, and that event got her thinking even more about the risks and rewards inherent in aviation and aerospace.

“I was super interested in learning everything about it and understanding what their backgrounds were and how to get into a career like that,” she said. “It was tragic, but it also inspired me to go down that path and want to be a part of it.”

Why Choose Aerospace Engineering at Embry-Riddle?

Rachelle began looking at Embry-Riddle’s Aerospace Engineering program on the advice of several family friends who were pilots and Eagle alums. When she left Michigan for the sunshine of the Daytona Beach Campus in 2007, she was sure of two things.

“I wanted to be an engineer, and I wanted to fly,” she said. “I came here because I knew I could do both.”

Although the Aerospace Engineering program is demanding and rigorous, it also offers scheduling flexibility that is hard to find at other schools. Rachelle opted to pursue private flight training and earned all her flight ratings as she worked toward her B.S. degree.

“The first two years, I didn’t take a break at all,” she said. “Once I got my multi-engine CFI and instrument rating, I started working as an instructor because it was flexible, and I could keep up with my engineering classes. I flew with some Aerospace Engineering students who wanted the experience, and I also was able to help my best friend and roommate earn her instrument rating, so it was some fun stuff like that.”

What Else Does the Embry-Riddle Experience Offer?

Those first years at Embry-Riddle were transformative in other ways as well. Rachelle met her husband, Kyle, at Embry-Riddle, and he is now a captain at Delta Air Lines. The couple now have four children together, Cooper, 8, Summer, 7, Quinn, 4, and Niall, 2.

Like many Embry-Riddle students, Rachelle took advantage of the university’s longstanding relationship with The Boeing Company and began her career as a manufacturing engineer in June 2011, right after graduation. She also continued her education almost as quickly.

“I wanted to get something from the [Worldwide] College of Business that would help with engineering and project management was the perfect fit for me,” Rachelle said.

The flexible schedule and online learning options offered by the Worldwide Campus helped her earn her master’s in 2015, even though she was already a busy working professional. And that degree made a difference.

“It helped me get promoted within the engineering levels as a result,” Rachelle said, whose career has progressed quickly through the ranks.

Rachelle stands in front of a 747 aircraft exhibit, her arms around her four children lined up by height.
Rachelle Strong poses with her children (L to R), Cooper, 8, Summer, 7, Quinn, 4, and Niall, 2, who are decked out in their best aviation gear at the Boeing Museum. (Photo: Rachelle Strong)
Blond woman and four blond children walking through a museum.
Rachelle Strong and her four children enjoy a light moment while visiting the Boeing Future of Flight Museum in Everett, Washington. (Photo: Rachelle Strong)

Ph.D. Program is the Next Step in Aviation Education

She didn’t stop her education there, however. Rachelle was soon part of the seventh cohort of Ph.D. candidates in Embry-Riddle’s unique Ph.D. in Aviation program, which was launched in 2010.

“I was super passionate about human factors and ergonomics because it was a blend of what I had done with my engineering background and my pilot background, and I was also working in manufacturing,” she said. “It fit my interests.”

Right after being accepted, Rachelle learned she was pregnant with her first child, and she attended her first summer residency in 2015 in Daytona Beach as a mom-to-be. Right after son, Cooper, was born, Rachelle discovered she was pregnant with a second child, her daughter, Summer.

So, she did her second residency as a mom and mom-to-be.

“I had three kids while I was in the Ph.D. program,” she said with a laugh.

By the time she was ready for her proposal defense, Rachelle was about to give birth to her third child, a son, Quinn.

“I was scheduled to come to Daytona and defend in March 2020 during the onset of the pandemic,” she said. “So, my real claim to fame is that I was first to do a virtual defense in the program because all the others up to then had been in-person. Luckily, it went well.”

Her fourth child, a son, Niall, was born after the academic journey was completed.

Flexible Programs That Open Doors to Success

When she looks back on that period, Rachelle is thrilled she didn’t have to make choices or compromises and that, thanks to the adaptability of Embry-Riddle’s programs, she was able to do it all.

“The master’s was extremely valuable, especially as I was transitioning from an engineering contributor role into a management role,” she said. “And the Ph.D. program really was a turning point for me because I was moving from a manufacturing engineering role to working with the flight management systems and the core systems of the airplane.”

The Ph.D., combined with her prior education and experience, made Rachelle the right fit when she applied for her current role as Chief Flight Deck Engineer.

“They were looking for someone who had a background in engineering in flight operations and in human factors because the human factors specialists live on this team,” she said.

Giving Back to Her Alma Mater

Despite a flat-out schedule as a manager, wife and mother, Rachelle still has strong connections to Embry-Riddle and has served as an adjunct professor teaching classes in Human Factors, Aviation Safety and Systems Engineering.

She’s also a primary point of contact between Boeing and Embry-Riddle engineering students and recently returned to the Daytona Beach Campus in September 2023 as part of Boeing Week.

“That's a very rewarding way to give back to the pipeline of students now at Embry-Riddle who are interested in coming to Boeing,” said Rachelle. “Boeing is now like a family industry for me because two of my three siblings also work here, and all my kids are in love with the aviation industry.”

While Rachelle’s dedication, work ethic and determination to never settle for anything less than what she wanted helped forge her current success, she credits Embry-Riddle with setting a foundation that allowed her to pursue those passions without compromising.

“Embry-Riddle was flexible enough and allowed me to have everything I wanted without having to make choices, and that’s important to me,” Rachelle said. “I use the information and the experience that I gained there every day in my job, and I've seen the benefits pay off.”

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