“High school dropout: she’ll rule the skies.”

That was a local newspaper’s headline about Francine James in Fall of 1977- when she became the first female and first black air traffic controller in Ithaca.

But that’s never how she saw herself. James said she was just working her way through- trying to survive- and living her life.

“I was very naive when I went in, at 27 I had been married, had three kids and I was still naive about life and grew up poor and limited in the city of Rochester. I didn’t know much about life, didn’t know about much of the hardships and I didn’t realize we were poor until I was in high school,” James said.

She said working for the Federal Aviation Administration was the highlight of her career. She later transitioned from air traffic controller to technician.

“I never felt like I knew enough and even to this day in life I don’t feel like that, there’s always so much more to gain. Always continue learning,” she said.

She reached the journeyman level, which is the highest you can go. But James kept going.

“You don’t know you’re making history until you’re in it. You don’t know you’re affecting someone’s life sometimes until later on after the fact.”

Her advice for young women trying to achieve their dreams? Be you- and never let anyone take away from who you are.

“I never had to fight and maybe I was fighting and not realizing it, i just did it…I wouldn’t trade it for anything; the good the bad the ugly that’s what has been good for me.”

And rule the skies- she did.