Merryl Tengesdal ’94, the first and only African American woman to fly the Air Force’s U-2 spy plane, will be a cast member on the new season of the CBS competition series “Tough As Nails.”
January 20, 2021
When Merryl Tengesdal ’94 was a child growing up in the Bronx, she dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Her career has indeed taken off, bringing her to the skies, and, most recently, among the stars of Hollywood.
The daughter of a single mother, Tengesdal chose to attend the University of New Haven. She was drawn to the small class sizes, hands-on opportunities, and the vibrant campus life. A member of the Chargers women’s basketball team, she fondly remembers traveling with her teammates to what is now her home state of California.
Grateful for the support of her classmates and mentors, she cites one of her physics professors as being especially influential and impactful. She says he kept her focused and encouraged her to take part in an engineering summer research opportunity in Maine – even driving her there and back. Some of her favorite memories of her time as a student include getting to know and making friends with a diverse group of people from around the world.
“I liked that there were so many international students at the University,” said Tengesdal, who earned a degree in electrical engineering. “There was a lot of diversity in terms of culture. I met people from Israel, Russia, and Greece, and I learned about their cultures. This is important because I believe part of the college experience is challenging your own ideas.”
‘I am very humbled’
A member of the University’s ROTC program, she went on to join the U.S. Navy, flying helicopters, and, later, she joined the U.S. Air Force. She served in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom and became the first and only African American woman to fly the Lockheed U-2, a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft nicknamed "Dragon Lady.” After more than 23 years, she retired with the rank of Colonel.
“My Navy background and exposure to leadership opportunities set me up for success in the Air Force,” she said. “Flying the U-2 is challenging. It is unforgiving.”
Tengesdal’s alma mater has recognized her exemplary career, awarding her a Distinguished Alumni award in 2013, and she will be presented with an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree at the University’s Virtual Winter Commencement on Saturday, January 23.
“I was blown away when I found out,” she said. “I am very humbled. My husband is pursuing his doctorate, and we joke that I earned my doctorate before he did. He is very proud and has been very supportive.”
‘How can you…make life better?’
Tengesdal’s determination, grit, and success have also gotten the attention of producers in Hollywood, as she has landed a place in the cast of season two of “Tough As Nails,” a competition series airing on CBS. The show celebrates Americans who work long, hard hours, testing their strength, endurance, and mental toughness.
After an extensive selection process that included interviewing and demonstrating her endurance, Tengesdal was selected from thousands of applicants from myriad backgrounds and fields to be one of just 12 contestants. They took part in individual and team competitions, all of which were very physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging, she said. Filming has now wrapped, and the season premiere will air on February 10.
“Filming was similar to serving in the military in that they both required very long days,” she said. “We also had to quarantine for a period before filming because of the pandemic, and it was like being on a boat at sea, since you were in a small space that you could not leave. I enjoyed the quarantine because it was a time of quiet.”
When she’s not in front of the cameras, Tengesdal is “tough as nails” in her work as a fitness trainer, which she continues after a hip replacement. Passionate about fitness, she enjoys the opportunities it offers to inspire and mentor young people. She is also a dedicated inspirational speaker, and she continues to push herself to learn, grow, and innovate.
Tengesdal hopes to continue to inspire and encourage young people – including those she meets as a trainer, her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old foster daughter, and current – and future – University of New Haven students. She says that young people have excellent and disruptive ideas for how to change the current model of working, and she offers this advice to students.
“Now is the time to use the skills you’ve cultivated at the University to bring about the innovation that is so needed and so wanted right now,” she said. “Things like long commutes and a traditional 40-hour work week are changing. How can you help with these changes and make life better?”