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Janet Wolfenbarger, SM ’85

Alumna becomes Air Force’s first female four-star general

Janet Wolfenbarger is a military trailblazer. In 1976, she was among the first women admitted to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And last June, she became the Air Force’s first female four-star officer—the second woman to earn the distinction in any branch of the military and the only one on active duty.

Janet Wolfenbarger

Now 54 and highly decorated, General Wolfenbarger serves as commander of the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. She oversees acquisitions, weapons development, and logistics support while overseeing some 83,000 civilian and military staff members. Her mission, she says, “is to ensure our Air Force is equipped to provide world-dominant air power.” Her biggest challenge? Budget constraints.

Dan Cziczo
This story is part of the March/April 2013 Issue of the MIT News magazine
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But Wolfenbarger has been trained to view hurdles as opportunities for innovation, and she credits her education and military training for preparation. “The academy put me in situations that stretched me mentally, physically, emotionally, and academically,” she says. “I came out on the other side of those experiences knowing I am far more capable than I ever thought I could be.”

Her MIT training in aeronautics and astronautics further cemented her self-confidence. “My MIT studies took me to an entirely new level and armed me with the critical-thinking skills and the technical background to more effectively operate at the highest levels in our Air Force,” she says.

Having a supportive family has helped her achieve a healthy work-life balance. Wolfenbarger’s father was an Air Force pilot, as is her husband, Craig. “In today’s military, it’s not necessary to trade off being a wife or mother for achieving success in a career,” she says. That wasn’t always the case, however. When Wolfenbarger began her Air Force career, there was still an executive order in place allowing the discharge of women who became parents.

With her promotion, Wolfenbarger fully acknowledges her role-model status. “I have a responsibility to demonstrate via speeches and other engagement opportunities that our Air Force has embraced the value of diversity in our institution,” she says. She’s often asked her secret to success. Her answer: “I’ve done the very best job I could at each and every assignment I was given, and I brought a positive attitude to work every day.”

Wolfenbarger lives on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base with her husband and teenage daughter, Callie.

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