Flying high: Flight attendants chase their dreams between layovers
The sky is not the limit for these flight attendants.
The sky is not the limit for these flight attendants.
When they aren't flying the friendly skies, three flight attendants told ABC News they're pursuing advanced degrees, meeting celebrities and having other exciting adventures.
Reese Williams initially wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force, following in the footsteps of his dad and brother, who were in the military. When officials tested his eyesight, they told him, "Kid, you're pretty much blind," he said.
But they still wanted him to enlist -- in a different capacity, eventually becoming a congressional flight attendant.
Williams, who spent a few years as a communications and navigation specialist while simultaneously working at United Airlines, was one of just two selected out of a pool of 800 applicants to become a part-time congressional flight attendant on Air Force Two, a position that has enabled him to meet first ladies, speakers of the House and several members of Congress, he told ABC News.
"It's been a roller coaster ride that I would never ever in my life change," Williams said.
Williams worked as an Air Force flight attendant for over 10 years across four presidential administrations.
Between his work at United and in the Air Force, Williams accomplished his goal of traveling the world. He's been to 139 countries and all 50 states.
And he didn't just meet political celebrities, either. His work brought him face-to-face with U2 singer Bono.
Williams said his intensive Air Force training made him a better flight attendant in both jobs. Air Force flight attendants endure 19 days of training during which they go through scenarios like being shot down by a missile over the water during a diplomatic mission. They get dropped into the water, where they need to inflate life rafts, yell out commands and check for injuries as firemen hose them down to simulate splashing waves.
Being a congressional flight attendant comes with additional duties: Williams faxes in passport numbers to clear customs; does security checks and loads bags. The attendants go through culinary training and serve meals.
Some of the training covers how to deal with delicate situations, which flight attendants face whether they're working on Air Force Two or serving customers on commercial flights.
Williams recently retired from the Air Force but said he plans on working for United as long as they'll have him.
"Okay, I'll do this for two or three years and get it out of my system," Williams said he thought to himself at first.
"But the reality is, it never gets out of your system. Twenty-five years later, here I am," he added.
While juggling his dual flight attendant roles, Williams collected three degrees, earning a bachelor's degree in sociology with a concentration in business administration from George Mason University in 2004 and two associate's degrees years later. Next up, he hopes to obtain a master's degree.
But pursuing an education while maintaining a career as a flight attendant can come with challenges. Manuel Gallegos, who has been a flight attendant for 17 years, told ABC News he struggled to keep up with his work schedule, his relationship and his classwork while he was pursuing classes at a community college.
Despite the hardships, Gallegos graduated with an associate's degree in 2018, and he told ABC News there was never a question about his professional goals.
"I just felt like this was a calling for me," said Gallegos. "To be in a position where I could advocate for somebody and hopefully be part of a change that makes people live a better life."
Gallegos was then accepted to the sociology program at California State University, Long Beach. As he finished his bachelor's degree, he decided to pursue his master's degree in social work.
After over a decade in school, Gallegos says he's done -- for now.
"I'm giving myself five years, just to see where my life is," he said. "Then, in five years, if I feel like I still need a challenge or feel like I need to grow more, then I'm going to apply for my doctorate in education."
Gallegos said his sociology degree has been helpful in his career as a flight attendant.
"I'm able to quickly build rapport with people," he said. "Being a flight attendant, you have to be able to do that when there's an issue that occurs at 36,000 feet in the air. It's not like we call the manager to resolve it, or ask the person to leave. We've got to try to defuse and deescalate the situation."
Marisa Cunanan's career as a flight attendant also allowed her to connect to people -- but in her case, it was her family.
While a student at University of California, Berkeley, Cunanan, a divorced single mom who had already been a flight attendant for over 15 years, lived on campus but used flight benefits to fly back and forth on weekends to see her family. She traveled to Mexico to do research for her thesis, focusing on the intersection between Mayan culture and Catholicism in the town of Izamal.
Her kids came to visit her on campus and experienced college life, seeing her dorm and going to football games.
Cunanan was accepted as a first-generation college student, and her father, who died in 2014, had been an international student from Mexico. He sat in on the classes of his Bay Area friends who attended Berkeley.
"When we were younger, he would joke around, how he attended Berkeley," said Cunanan. "You can always make those jokes, but I think it was something that he actually probably would have wanted to have done."
For two years, Cunanan juggled a double major in art history and anthropology, her work as a flight attendant and her life as a mom in Los Angeles.
Cunanan graduated in 2022 and she's currently studying for the LSAT.
"For people out there on the fence of whether they can do it or not, just don't limit yourself," Cunanan said. "Believe in yourself."
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