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AAPI Heritage Month

May 28, 2021

TJ Chen: Mentoring the Next Generation

As Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month Celebration continues, the SWAAAE DEI Committee sat down with SWAAAE Director - Northern California and Committee Vice Chair TJ Chen to learn more about his career path that led him from an FAA internship to his current position as Chief Administrative Officer and Deputy Director of Planning and Development at Sacramento County and Sacramento International Airport (SMF). TJ joined SMF in 2015 and continues to enjoy his job, which is made even more fun and interesting due to his creative and collaborative team of managers and staff.

Could you describe your career path?

Exclusively aviation focused, TJ’s career path allowed him to span and gain experience in all three sectors: private, Federal, and now as an airport executive. TJ began his path when he was at San Jose State University studying for his Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering. While at SJSU, he was a college intern with the FAA San Francisco Airports District Office. Immediately upon graduating, he began working at Shutt Moen Associates, where he gained experience as an airport engineering consultant. His next career move was to return to the FAA San Francisco ADO as a Program Manager. His aspiration to travel internationally led TJ to Zodiac Aerospace, which allowed him to gain massive amounts of frequent flyer miles during his travels to more than 20 countries, including travel throughout South America and the Pacific Rim as he helped grow Zodiac’s China market. TJ was then recruited to join SMF to serve in his current position.

Who has influenced or inspired you in your career? 

TJ summed this up in one word – Mentors. In each job, he was fortunate to have outstanding mentors. For instance, at the FAA, TJ worked directly for Robin Hunt, who is now the Deputy Director for the Western-Pacific Region. Robin was instrumental in giving TJ in-depth experience on the AIP program and she taught him the importance of being professional, fair, and accountable. He carries this work ethic forward and is now, in turn, mentoring young professionals at SMF. TJ is inspired by their enthusiasm, focus, and desire to learn and he strongly believes in giving back to the aviation industry via mentoring the next generation.   

What is your proudest accomplishment? 

Raising four daughters. TJ sees his daughters growing up as proud and independent Asian Americans; watching them progress from young girls to college students, while gaining more confidence as they mature, is his proudest accomplishment.  

What advice do you have for Asian Americans who are either exploring a career in aviation or experiencing some challenges as they progress with their careers?

Don’t give up! There is a stereotype that Asian Americans don’t have the typical ingredients to be good leaders in aviation, which is why TJ is dedicated to bringing more diversity, equity, and equality to the aviation industry. Asian Americans are underrepresented in the industry, yet the aviation profession is such an awesome profession. Naturally, there will be bumps in the road, but this is a very rewarding career path. Reach out and find mentors that you can relate to and vice versa; and don’t have any self-doubt if someone tries to discourage you.

What does Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you?

AAPI Heritage Month is about awareness. Asian Americans contributed to American society and didn’t just immigrate to the United States in the last 50 years. Asian Americans were here during the Gold Rush and helped build the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. Many persons of AAPI heritage were veterans of World War I, World War II, and all the major conflicts in the recent history. Society cannot continue to see the AAPI community as hidden demographics; the community needs to and is becoming more vocal and more proud of AAPI contributions and accomplishments.  

Something that people will find surprising about you?

TJ is a proud graduate of the United States Marine Corps School of Infantry (SOI) and subsequently served in the Marine Corps Reserves. He described 16 weeks at SOI as his toughest experience physically and mentally. In other words, “it made boot camp feel like Disneyland.” At the end of the 16 weeks, he realized that he had accomplished something incredible and was now recognized as a member of the most elite fighting force in the world.

Another surprising fact is that TJ is quite the dedicated runner. He runs nearly daily and while he was with Zodiac Aerospace, he regularly ran a 5K in every city that he visited. He has selfies from practically all over the world, which were posted on various social media platforms with the hashtag, #AnotherCityAnother5K. Some of his favorite selfies are from Gold Coast, Australia; Ziu Zhai Gou, Sichuan Province, China; and Petra, Jordan. His friends always looked forward to his posts as this helped them know where in the world was TJ at that moment!

May 20, 2021

Pearl Sun – The Adventurous Underdog              

Many of you probably remember Pearl Sun from a few years back. Not only did she represent the AAAE Student Chapter of California State University – Los Angeles at several SWAAAE conferences as the Student Chapter’s Vice President and President, she was also the recipient of SWAAAE Academic Scholarship two years in a row, in 2016 and 2017. Pearl has successfully transitioned to the professional world, and the DEI Committee reached out to her recently as a part of the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month Celebration to share her story with the Chapter, including what inspired her to pursue a career in aviation.

Tell us about your upbringing?

Born and raised in San Gabriel Valley (east part of Los Angeles) with three sisters and first generation immigrant Chinese parents, Pearl thought her upbringing in San Gabriel Valley was typical of Chinese and Asian American families where strict rules and high expectations were a norm. After high school, she enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College and later transferred to California State University – Los Angeles focusing on a degree in aviation. After receiving her Bachelor’s in Aviation Administration in 2017, she continued her academic studies and earned a Master’s in Public Administration from California State University – Long Beach in 2019, while working two jobs.

Who inspired you to pursue a career in aviation?

Growing up, Pearl lived adjacent to San Gabriel Valley Airport and developed a strong fascination with flying and aviation watching airplanes take-off and land every day. Her uncle, a retired air traffic controller for the US military, encouraged and inspired Pearl to pursue a career in aviation. 

What are some the challenges you have experienced?

The stereotype of a career in aviation is that it is not a good fit for Asian Americans or women. A counselor at Mt. San Antonio College actually advised Pearl that a degree in nursing would be a better fit. Undeterred, Pearl turned this terrible advice into an underdog mentality and galvanized her focus to prove doubters wrong and break stereotypes about Asian Americans or women. She also decided to pursue a career in the public sector to continue to learn and expand her skillset while giving back to the aviation community. Pearl has already achieved her goals as she currently serves as a System Engineer/Acquisition Specialist contracted by FAA Voice Switch and Recorder Program Office to replace legacy voice switch and recording systems in FAA air traffic control towers.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

Pearl participated in the student project competition with her team at the 2016 AAAE Annual Conference in Houston and earned third place. In 2017, Pearl was recommended to attend the AAAE Annual Conference in Long Beach, volunteered as a facilitator at a student workshop, and her team earned second place in the student research project contest. Being an introvert, she appreciated these opportunities to allow her to push herself beyond her comfort zone. 

What advice do you have for Asian Americans who are either exploring a career in aviation or experiencing some challenges as they progress with their careers?

When faced with opposition, take on the underdog mentality; do not be scared of a more challenging path to success; get out of your comfort zone; continue to network; and don’t stop learning.

Something that people will find surprising about you?  

Pearl plays the Taiko drums, and she is a dare devil with her one-wheel electric skateboard. She has recently completed her first one-wheel electric skateboard race in Las Vegas. Pearl also took her very first trip abroad and spent a week in Japan after graduating from California State University – Los Angeles.  She caught the travel bug with this trip and can’t wait for the next opportunity to travel abroad. 


May 7, 2021

Please join SWAAAE as we celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.  In 1992, Congress passed an amendment that designated the month of May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in order to recognize the achievements of people of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) descent. Activities typically include events, food festivals, educational activities for students and the general public, and television/film programs.

This year, SWAAAE is celebrating the achievements of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the aviation industry.  We invite you to read more about AAPI men and women in aviation throughout the month.  

For the first week, we would like to share the online exhibit from San Diego Air & Space Museum on accomplished Asian Americans in Aviation.  Here is the link:

San Diego Air & Space Museum - Historical Balboa Park, San Diego (

We plan to highlight Asian/Pacific American professionals in the SW Chapter over the next few weeks so keep an eye on your inbox. 

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