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Student pilot competes for pilot wings, pageant crown

Second Lt. Sarena Shilts, 47th Student Squadron student pilot, poses for a photo on April 2, 2021 at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. This year, she competes for two accolades: her silver pilot wings, and the Miss Texas USA crown. (U.S. Air Force illustration by 47th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs)

Second Lt. Sarena Shilts, 47th Student Squadron student pilot, poses for a photo on April 2, 2021 at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. This year, she competes for two accolades: her silver pilot wings, and the Miss Texas USA crown. (U.S. Air Force illustration by 47th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs)

LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Tx. -- Second Lt. Sarena Shilts is competing for two accolades this year: her silver pilot wings, and the Miss Texas USA crown.

"I'm attracted to pageantry for similar reasons I'm attracted to being an Air Force pilot," Shilts said. "The two worlds seem to contradict, but there are actually many parallels between the two. Physical training, communication skills, leadership experience.”

A Texas Christian University graduate of class 2019, Shilts, who is in phase two of three in Undergraduate Student Pilot Training (UPT) is heading to Houston to compete in the Miss Texas USA pageant on Sept. 3, 2021.

=For many U.S. Air Force pilots, UPT is one of the most difficult and challenging times of their career. They endure long hours, difficult subject matter, and an enormous amount of pressure to graduate into the world's greatest Air Force.

How does one balance pilot training and pageantry? Shilts will tell you that it takes a lot of grit, and that competing for the pageant isn’t what you may think it is.

“A lot of people think you just show up on stage, prance around and the prettiest one wins, and that's just not true," she said.

Shilts often spends her time off-duty working with her fitness coach and professional mentors where she sharpens her interviewing skills, communication style, health, wellness, and physical fitness.

Shilts uses what she calls her own personal “grit” and the discipline she learned in college to prepare herself for the numerous challenges of UPT and the hurdles of the beauty pageant competition world.

A mathematics major, Shilts has been driven to encourage young women to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). During her college career, Shilts initially struggled with her math education, which also serves as part of her pageant platform.

“My whole life I’ve been told I’m not a math person,” She said. “it's not easy to excel at anything when the stories you're telling yourself don't serve you and your goals.”

She soon realized just how powerful self-limiting beliefs can be.

“With a little encouragement from my numerical analysis professor, I chose to rewrite the narrative, and take control of the stories I was telling myself. When I started believing in myself, I started putting in the work, which allowed me to graduate with a Bachelors of Science in mathematics as well as a whole new level of confidence.”

Shilts is passionate about using her role in pageants to show young women that the things you may not think are possible for you are closer than you think.

“When I first took the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT) I didn’t pass the pilot section, and only got a 13 in the math section.” Shilts said.

Shilts studied again after her leadership in ROTC encouraged and reinforced her new mindset. When she took the AFOQT a second time, she passed with flying colors. Shilts went on to compete amongst her peers for a pilot slot and soon earned her place here at Laughlin.

“You don’t always need to be perfect to have a seat at the table. Take ownership of the stories you tell yourself, rewrite the narratives that don’t serve you, and put in the work,” Shilts said.

“That's how dreams come true.”