Dawne Barrett wants to encourage girls to experience “the freedom the sky gives you.”

Barrett, an air traffic control supervisor and licensed pilot, is president of Stars of the North, the Minnesota chapter of Women in Aviation International. She is also an organizer of the chapter’s third-annual Girls in Aviation Day, which attracted 2,000 attendees to Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie in late September. Girls and their families got inside airplanes, learned scientific principles relating to flight and discovered aviation is more than piloting a plane.

“When we were kids, we could go to an airport and watch airplanes,” Barrett says. Kids today can’t do that and may not be aware of all that goes on. “You don’t know different opportunities are available until you’re exposed to them,” she adds. “And it (the event) exposes them to a lot of different aspects of aviation and aerospace and what’s available.”

Additionally, Girls in Aviation Day gets girls to “take down their own barriers they’ve put on themselves because they’ve been told by society or somebody that they can’t. And they can,” she adds (for example, you’re not too short to fly).

Even finances can be overcome; Stars of the North connects girls with scholarship opportunities for further learning and training.

Nilly Rahimi is one such beneficiary. The St. Paul teen had a scholarship to attend a 2016 National Flight Academy camp in Pensacola, Fla., but couldn’t pay the travel costs. Barrett tapped the aviation community and quickly raised the money.

Rahimi is now a first year student at Lake Superior College in Duluth with plans to become a commercial airline pilot. She’ll join a relatively small group — women make up only 6.7 percent of U.S. pilots. That’s why she’s a fan of the Girls in Aviation Day.

“It’s such a male-dominated industry, and I know there are girls who love anything that involves aviation — from flying to dispatch or dealing with aircraft maintenance,” Rahimi says. “I just think it’s great that we are able to share STEM programs with the next generation.”

Seeing all the girls smiling in the cockpit and having fun with hands-on science activities and asking questions of women in the field inspires Barrett, too. The 2017 event was the “biggest and baddest” Girls in Aviation Day in the world, and it can only go up from there. As Barrett says, “You just have to believe in yourself.”