When Rolanda Findlay learned she would be attending flight school as part of her commission in the U.S. Navy, she was more than taken aback, she says.

“I was thinking ‘who learns how to fly … who gets to do that?’” Findlay said. As a, psychologist, she was not expecting that learning the basics of piloting would be part of her on-the-job training. “It was an amazing experience … once in a lifetime.” 

Back on the ground, Findlay, who earned master's and doctoral degrees from Virginia Tech in 2007 and 2009, respectively, uses her skills in industrial and organizational (IO) psychology to assist in the selection and training of future Navy pilots. IO psychologists research and identify how behaviors and attitudes can be improved through hiring practices, training programs, and feedback systems for employees.

“IO is very broad,” she said, “and the opportunities in the field are endless.”

A month after defending her doctoral dissertation, Findlay began what she says she hopes will be a long-lasting career with the Navy.

“I never really considered joining the military,” Findlay said. “But this opportunity came along, and now I feel so blessed.”

Findlay’s path to the Navy began in the summer of 2005 when, as a young graduate student, she joined her advisor, Neil Hauenstein, associate professor of psychology in the College of Science, at the Summer Faculty Research Program of the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. The institute offers Equal Opportunity/Equal Employment Opportunity (EO/EEO) education and training for military active duty and reservists, as well as civilians. Findlay assisted Hauenstein with his research and was invited back to the institute three times to continue her research. Much of her work at DEOMI involved the development of tests to determine the effectiveness of equal opportunity education and training.

“To be able to go to DEOMI as a graduate student and be a summer researcher was unheard of,” Findlay said. “To be repeatedly selected to come back was mind-blowing.” Findlay was the only graduate student to participate in the institute’s Summer Faculty Research Program during its 22-year history.

“I was impressed with Rolanda’s maturity and conscientiousness,” Hauenstein said. “The institute shared my regard.”

Those who know her say Findlay lives life with a passion ─ passion for what she’s doing and passion for others.

“Rolanda’s personal qualities are rooted in her strong faith,” Hauenstein said. “The universal reaction is that Rolanda brightens any day; she is such a positive force that you cannot help but feel better having spoken with her.”

One recent DEOMI project called upon Findlay to develop a series of video-based Situational Judgment Tests (SJTs) to be used as interactive training tools for EO/EEO professionals. In each SJT, users are presented with a video of an EO/EEO scenario followed by several options for addressing the situation and are given feedback and rationale for each option.

“SJTs have an important role in training because most of the military is a team environment,” Findlay said. “People have to respect one another and break down barriers in order to get the job done. It’s a great feeling to know that what you've worked on has an impact.”

As her studies at Virginia Tech were coming to a close, Findlay was recruited to join the Navy as an aerospace experimental psychologist. Her previous work at DEOMI combined with her academic record made her a highly qualified recruit.

“[Virginia] Tech’s graduate program in psychology really made me stand out,” she said. “It was a rigorous program, but it paid off. Every day, I get to work on things I have learned and apply them to a military environment.”

Now at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, FL, Findlay’s first tour of duty includes responsibilities such as assisting with the selection of future pilots and conducting performance evaluations. So why was she given pilot training when her job will not involve flying?

“I am going to be assisting with the selection of future Navy pilots, so I need to know what they go through so that I can do my job effectively,” she said.

She completed a seven-month Aeromedical Flight Officer training program, which included class work as well as some serious boot camp requirements, such as swimming a mile fully clothed in her flight suit. Before the program, she didn’t even know how to swim. She earned her gold wings last spring.

“The Navy teaches me things I never thought I would be doing." she said. "This is a job I can be proud of.”