Section Elevating Student Experience
When Anthony Thornton (PhD AAE ’92) traces his accomplished career in aerospace engineering to its beginning, he pictures himself at 12 years old watching B-52 bombers on the tarmac with his father, a 27-year veteran of the United States Air Force.
The young man was immediately smitten with the giants, which seemed to defy all logic and physics. “We were looking through the fence, and I watched this B-52 bomber run down the tarmac, wings bouncing, engines blowing. All of a sudden, it just gracefully lifted off. I was in wonderment how anything that huge could get off the ground. That’s what motivated me to say ‘I need to understand that,’” he says.
Since then, Thornton has dedicated his life to the dream: working as an aerospace engineer for Sandia National Laboratories, obtaining a doctorate from Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and building airplanes at Lockheed Martin. Currently, he is the director of corporate strategy and corporate ombudsman at the Universities Space Research Association.
He wants other young people to achieve their dreams, too. And as an African-American, Thornton is particularly interested in helping minority students have the means to do so. Thornton and his wife, Glenna, have created a will and trust bequest gift to establish the first scholarship for African-American students in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The more you learn
Thornton’s father recognized his son's desire to reach the sky, but he would need the right incentive. While he was in second grade, his dad promised him a dollar for every A earned that year. Dad got more than he bargained for.
“I made 72 A's on my report card. He ended up giving me 20 bucks,” Thornton says, laughing. But he got the message.
“My dad wanted me to understand that the more you learn, the more you earn,” he says. “That stuck with me the rest of my life.”
Indeed, it did. After completing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado, he was recruited by Sandia National Laboratories, which sent him to Stanford for his master’s degree. Purdue was next.
Attending to unique needs
A huge Neil Armstrong fan and a believer in the University’s quality and reputation, Thornton is honored to be a Purdue grad. So it is not easy for him to point out that minority students face unique challenges.
When he arrived, he was surprised to be met with a spectrum of social isolation, varying from subtle nonverbal cues and social exclusion to outright name-calling. He much prefers to focus on the positive elements of his experience at Purdue, however, and Glenna agrees. “The good outweighs the bad by a long shot,” she says. “Purdue gave him a lifetime of opportunity.”
One of the best parts of Thornton's experience was his interaction with professors.
“When I was at Sandia, I was used to working with PhD-level folks. I became comfortable in that environment,” he says. “So, when I came to Purdue, I was immediately comfortable talking to professors as if they were peers.”
He recognizes that his professional background gave him an advantage many students do not have. Furthermore, minority students are more likely to be first-generation college students. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2017 report, black students made up only 11 percent of continuing generation students. This affects engagement, and as a result, academic success.
Because Thornton believes so deeply in the opportunities provided by a Purdue education, he wants to assist in financial and practical ways to help continue growing a healthy social environment for students of all backgrounds.
'Opportunities you can’t even imagine'
A recent memory stands out for Thornton. In 2015, he was on campus to accept his Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award, and he met with students from the Minority Engineering Program. After his talk, a student approached him and confessed that she had decided to quit. He understood. But he encouraged her to power through.
“I told her if she stuck it out, she would have opportunities she couldn’t even imagine right now. I told her it’s a tough school, but it’s tough for a reason: It’s one of the best engineering schools in the country,” he says. And he was right. She proceeded to finish her degree and landed a job as an industrial engineer at a firm in Chicago.
To this day, Glenna is deeply moved by how game-changing a mere conversation can be. “That student’s life would have been different if not for Anthony. This is why the scholarship is important to me,” she says.
Purdue is grateful, too. Tom Shih, the J. William Uhrig and Anastasia Vournas Head and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says, “Our school is extremely grateful to Anthony and Glenna Thornton for creating a scholarship that will enable us to recruit passionate and highly worthy students in AAE. The Thorntons’ gift will help us greatly in our efforts to further enhance our diversity.”
“I’m proud to be a Purdue alum,” Thornton says. “I think it’s moving in the right direction, and I am glad to contribute to that.”
Banner Photo Caption
Anthony and Glenna Thornton
Investments in Infrastructure
Expansions and improvements to teaching and learning spaces, laboratories, offices
Elevating Student Experience
Scholarships, student opportunities, diversity programs, student clubs
Dedicated to the Cause
Fundraising, event hosting, activity planning, advisory boards, networking with alumni
Laboratory infrastructure and equipment, project startup funds, graduate student support
Administrative funds, student travel and networking, unexpected opportunities
Rewarding, retaining, recruiting faculty and promoting diversity in engineering