Amelia Rose Earhart has followed a flight path in life that has taken her to the heights of self-discovery and triumph, but only after experiencing an unexpected descent into uncertainty and anguish.


She has sought out and found her true identity, even though it meant losing a fundamental part of who she thought she always was. And cruising through the clouds – fueled by her connection to one of aviation’s most iconic names – she has emerged feeling more grounded than ever and with greater sense of purpose than she thought possible.


Earhart brought her unique and inspirational story of becoming the youngest woman to fly around the world in a single-engine aircraft to Tampa on Friday, Oct. 9, helping make the 10th annual USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy Fall Symposium a soaring success. The 32-year-old pilot and former Denver television anchor’s tale of adventure, adversity and search for answers made her an ideal keynote speaker for a program that featured the theme, “Finding Your True North.”


The symposium honored two Tampa Bay area women who spent their careers doing precisely that, charting bold courses that tapped inner strengths and greatly enhanced the community in the process.


Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio received the Community Leadership Award, singling her out for outstanding public service that began as the youngest person to win a seat on the Board of County Commissioners for Hillsborough County and currently includes her role as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. And Jan Platt was presented with the Community Leadership Lifetime Achievement Award, singling out her contributions on the Tampa City Council and Hillsborough County Commission and as the only elected official to chair three major area agencies: the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the Agency on Bay Management and the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority.


The slate of honorees also included USF student Indira Ranaweera, a senior majoring in Biomedical Science in the Honors College and recipient of the WLP’s Esther Schneid Memorial Scholarship. She delivered an uplifting talk about the obstacles her family faced after moving to the United States from Kashmir. That, coupled with her many achievements and aspirations – including a goal of becoming a doctor helping underserved populations at home and abroad – elicited a rousing ovation from the sold-crowd of some 700 spectators at the Al La Carte Event Pavilion.


The event raised more than $225,000 that will go toward funding scholarships for outstanding students, grants for faculty involved in groundbreaking research, and leadership programs across the USF System. Many of those attendees, comprised primarily of area women involved in business, politics, education and philanthropy, enjoyed a series of morning sessions featuring female panelists – with such topics as “Managing Turbulence” and “Going Beyond Your Dreams.”


For the showcase guest, both of those titles held a special meaning, indeed.


• • •


Drawing on her television experience as a polished public speaker, Earhart conveyed the twists and turns of her personal journey from an everyday college student to a groundbreaking pilot in captivating fashion.


She explained how she came to get her a name that inextricably linked her to a legend. Her parents had heard there was a distant family connection to the famed flier, Amelia Mary Earhart, whose attempt to circumnavigate the world in a single-engine plane ended with her mysterious disappearance in the central Pacific near Howland Island in July 1937.


“I don’t know if they really thought it through all the way,” Earhart says. “My mom said, ‘Okay, we’ve got this great opportunity – let’s name her Amelia Earhart.’ My dad thought, ‘I don’t know about that: She’ll have to spend her entire life talking about airplanes and someone else.’ But they decided to do it. And every single day of my life, as early as I can remember, people would say, ‘Oh, your name is Amelia Earhart, you should become a pilot.’ When you hear that every single day, it starts to get in your head.”


Flash forward to her college days. Earhart had enrolled at the University of Colorado, paying her way through school with hopes of becoming an English teacher. But the questions about her name had never ceased. So when she was 21, she decided to take a “discovery flight” – an introductory flying lesson at a local airport. Unfortunately, the lesson cost more money than she had in her bank account, and her parents weren’t in a position to help. So Earhart earned money with side jobs – including work as a cocktail waitress and on a golf course maintenance crew – and finally took her first lesson.


“It was one of those naturally comfortable moments,” she recalls. “I felt more comfortable in an airplane than I did in a car. And it became an obsession.”


That led to the first of several pivotal turns. While working her waitress job, she told some customers about her interest in flying and revealed that her name was Amelia Earhart. One of the people at the table happened to be a dean at Colorado, and she was immediately captivated. “She took me under her wing and brought me to the local newspaper, and said, ‘You’ve got to do a story on this girl,’ ” Earhart recounts. “So they wrote a story, and that led to a press release being sent out to national media about a CU student named Amelia Earhart learning how to fly.”


One of the media outlets that picked up the story was a Denver radio station, 850 KOA, which brought Earhart to the station to be interviewed about her newfound passion. “At the end of the interview, they offered me a job,” she says. Earhart became the station’s traffic reporter. “It’s so funny that they took a chance on me, but they did.”


Earhart soon was doing radio traffic updates from a helicopter, and one day subbed in doing her reports for the television station that shared the copter. Suddenly, she was “Amelia in the air” on both radio and TV, and becoming a fixture on the Denver area airwaves. Meanwhile, she kept taking flight lessons when she could afford them, while continuing her studies at CU – with hour-long drives each way from Boulder to Denver for her traffic reporter job. “Everyone who saw me on TV thought my name was fake,” she says. But eventually, the novelty wore off and Earhart settled in as a weather and traffic presenter on the local newscast, eventually earning her pilot’s license and instrument rating.


She could have stayed at the station indefinitely. But after eight years on the job, an idea played on her mind: “I was feeling more accomplished as a pilot, and I thought, ‘What am going to do with this name I have? What if I go big with it? What if I take a huge risk and try to do a flight around the world, symbolically completing Amelia’s flight?’ ”

The idea would be to recreate the flight as closely as possible, and the more she allowed herself to talk openly about it, the more real the idea became. Instead of giving her funny looks, people asked how they could help her. Eventually, she was able to enlist 21 corporate sponsors covering some $2-million in estimated costs, including single-engine plane manufacturer Pilatus, which supplied a PC-12 NG aircraft free of charge for the voyage.


She never imagined that her dream was about to unravel.


• • •


Though Earhart had grown up hearing about a vague family connection to the first lady of flying, she wanted to know more as she became immersed in flying.


In her early 20s, she even hired a genealogist for $500 to explore the matter – learning that a common ancestry could indeed be traced to the 1700s in Pennsylvania. But it would cost $3,000 for the genealogist to search European records and determine the exact point of connection. Earhart didn’t have that kind of money, and felt good about the information she’d received, at least confirming a link of some kind.


She happily relayed that story while being interviewed on the Today show, which flew her to New York to talk about plans for her flight, and a foundation she’d started – Fly With Amelia – to teach girls how to become pilots. But back in Denver, trouble was brewing. A colleague with experience in genealogy doubted her claims and did his own research, determining there was no connection at all. He reported his findings to the station – maintaining that Earhart was misrepresenting her genealogical ties to promote herself.


“I was so upset and confused,” she says. “I didn’t know if he was right or if I was right. All I knew was what I’d been told by my family from the time I could remember and the genealogist I’d hired. All of a sudden, it seemed like everybody was calling my character into question. The newspaper did a big story on it. And my station put me on the air to talk to viewers directly about the situation. It was terrible.”


Her boss at the station told her the burden of proof was on her, so she hired another genealogist to delve into the matter. Several weeks later, he called with news: “Amelia, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but you share no personal connection.”


Earhart was devastated and embarrassed, even though she knew in her heart she’d done nothing wrong. Fortunately, encouragement from a mentor gave her the boost she needed. “Did the F.A.A. walk into the delivery room and hand you a pilot’s license the day you were born and named Amelia Earhart by your parents?” he asked. “No, you did the same hard work as any pilot to earn your license. You’re teaching girls how to fly. If you feel like you’re supposed to fly around the world, then you do it for yourself. Don’t do it for any supposed connection.”


The words lifted the doubt that weighed on her. She took his advice, calling all 21 of her sponsors – and each one declared that they would continue to back her. “I’d gone most of my life believing something about myself, and suddenly it was taken away,” she says. “I had to decide who I wanted to be, instead of who I was supposed to be. It was time to say, ‘This is who I am.’ ”


On June 26, 2014, she and a seasoned co-pilot began her flight around the world in Oakland, Cal. – from the same airport Amelia Mary Earhart took off 77 years earlier. The 24,300 nautical-mile trip – tracked by young girls across the country on a special Web page – took 108 hours to complete, ending successfully back in Oakland on July 11.


One of the most memorable moments came when she crossed over Howland Island, where the original Amelia Earhart was supposed to land after a stop in New Guinea, but was never seen again. Turning the controls briefly over to her co-pilot, the modern-day Amelia circled over Howland Island and tweeted out the names of 12 girls she had chosen to receive scholarships to her foundation. The process was filled with such positive energy, she remembers, that it pushed away all the prior hurt and negativity.


“It was the first point in the trip where I stopped feeling like I was copying Amelia,” she says. “It was time to pick up where she left off. And yes, use her leadership and passion and spirit of adventure, but become my own version of Amelia Earhart and figure out who I was.”


It turns out she was a woman finding her true north – with the sky as her limit.


–Dave Scheiber, USF Foundation