University of Delaware
Betty Riegel, a Pan Am stewardess in the 1960s, is now a UD undergraduate student.

Elder studies

Riegel, former Pan Am stewardess, finds wings as Blue Hen undergraduate


12:41 p.m., Aug. 8, 2013--After jetting around the globe as a glamorous 1960s Pan American World Airways stewardess, Betty Riegel currently soars as a University of Delaware undergraduate student. 

Riegel, now 74, worked as a secretary immediately after graduating high school in 1955, a time when many women did not attend college. At UD, she can now fulfill her lifelong ambition of obtaining a college degree.

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“Now at this time in my life when there are more choices, it seemed natural for me to take advantage of the great program in Delaware permitting people over the age of 60 to attend free of charge — except the books, of course,” Riegel says. “I sent in my application and was thrilled to have been accepted at the University of Delaware.” Senior adults who are residents of Delaware and matriculated students at UD can take credit courses on a space-available basis without paying tuition.

Riegel has not yet declared a major, but nurtures an interest in the liberal arts. She often draws on her Pan Am experience for her studies, but also acquires knowledge on less familiar topics.

“My lifetime experiences, as a whole, have all contributed to my studies. I'm honestly surprised at how much I have retained but also how much I need to know,” Riegel says.

Selected from a highly competitive applicant pool, Riegel met the restrictive entry requirements and trained as one of 17 British Pan Am stewardesses in 1961. Riegel developed many multi-faceted skills including safety procedures, high-end cosmetology practices and multiple-course meal preparations, all the while practicing proper stewardess etiquette. She also tended to a wide array of passengers including royals, and also celebrity figures like Cary Grant and the Mamas and the Papas. 

Depicting her luxurious lifestyle with Pan Am, Riegel wrote the book Up in the Air, now published in the United Kingdom and many commonwealth countries. Up in the Air describes her personal experiences with Pan Am’s iconic top-of-the-line services.

Riegel’s respectable job, filled with both glamorous tasks and many demanding responsibilities, broadened both her educational and experiential knowledge of the world. 

Seeking a deeper educational background, Riegel started taking classes at UD in 2009. She approaches her coursework with great fervor and curiosity while also balancing her role as a student with her domestic life as a wife and mother.

“Studying for exams means my husband will sometimes come up with dinner for us,” Riegel says. “[Balance] can sometimes be rather difficult, but my sons are having a great time, telling me to do my homework and asking me about my grades, but I think they are proud that I am doing this.” 

Riegel generally keeps to herself in the classroom, but she loves engaging with fellow students and contributing to the academic atmosphere. With her unique experiences, she not only acts as a UD student, but also a role model to the campus community.

“Make the most of this opportunity,” she says to current UD students. “Savor the experience of choosing from so many different courses and definitely take advantage of study abroad offerings. [They] will broaden your outlook completely. Also, always remember to be friendly to the ‘wrinklies' in your classes. He or she may be someone's mother or even grandmother.”

Article by Laura Hepp

Photo by Ambre Alexander

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