As the temperature begins to drop outside, a couple of students from the City College aeronautics department hurry to close the large open doors of an aircraft hanger. An airplane flies overhead as they recruit a few others to help move equipment out of the doorway. Standing on top of a stool nearby, a young woman quickly volunteers as she stretches her arms high above her head, trying to connect a space heater to an extension cord dangling above.
A typical blue work shirt drapes over black pants, her name stitched in black letters across the right side. She comes across a little unassuming, but don’t be fooled — she’s pushing boundaries, and as culture meets passion, she’s making her dreams take off.
“I’ve always liked flying,” says 25-year-old Youa Xiong. “When I was little I wanted to be either an astronaut or pilot, and I thought to myself, if I want to be a pilot then I better know how everything works first.”
She’s in her third semester as an airframe powerplant major in City College’s aeronautics program located at McClellan Park in Sacramento. Choosing City College because of its long history with aviation, Xiong has her eye on NASA, and is pursuing a dream that almost didn’t happen.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Xiong and her parents immigrated to the U.S. as Hmong refugees when she was 1. Originally arriving in Minnesota, her family moved to California when she was 14. It wasn’t only her family that migrated, a long history of Hmong culture and traditions came along too.
“Our culture is very conservative,” Xiong says, as she explains some of the expectations put upon Hmong women, one being how her family pushed her to pursue a career in the medical field before she took off chasing aviation.
She spent a year studying pharmaceutical science at University of California, Irvine, followed by two years medical assisting, leaving both due to lack of interest. After two attempts to follow her parental and cultural expectations, Xiong thought it was time to chase her own dreams by breaking the traditions of her culture and setting an example for others in her position.
Helicopters and jet engines can be heard revving in the background. Under the noise of a working airport, Xiong, with her soft-spoken demeanor, talks about the process of patching a hole in an airframe, pointing to examples on one of over a dozen planes and helicopters in various stage of assembly scattered throughout the hangar. The thumping of power tools echoes heavily in the open space of the hangar, as Xiong jokes about always being the one who gets volunteered to crawl into the small tail section of the cessna.
“She came in here knowing nothing about airplanes, and a year and a half later she’s out there working on them,” says Larry Johnson, chair of the aeronautics program, “which is quite an accomplishment right there.”
Even before her program of study has ended, Xiong landed a job as an aircraft mechanic working at Ivan Air, based at Sacramento Executive Airport. She works there before attending classes in the evening.
“Maintaining a personal life and doing this,” says Richard Acevedo, a former airframe mechanic in the Air Force and classmate of Xiong’s. “It’s a night class, but it’s like having an evening job coming here. Working all day and coming here to do this ‘til close, to 10 o’clock at night — it takes a toll.”
“It’s a lot of dedication, agrees Kevin Goehring, 50, a professor in the aeronautics department and a pilot himself. “It’s an extreme amount of dedication to do two years of six plus hours a day, plus work, plus everything else.”
“She came with no mechanical background at all,” Goehring continues. “She is extremely inquisitive and very willing to learn. You can put anything in front of her and she would just do it to the best of her ability. She has a great attitude, and because of that great attitude, she’s done quite well.”
Xiong’s passion for flying started early. As a child, she attended Farnsworth Aerospace Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota, and recalls being inspired to pursue aviation by a NASA astronaut that visited her school.
Her ultimate goal is to follow that first spark and work for NASA on the depot level maintenance team. Depot-level maintenance, as described online by NASA, involves extensive modification or overhaul to major aircraft components. After she finishes at City College, she plans to obtain her pilot’s license while continuing to work in the field as an airframe mechanic.
Xiong says her culture plays an important part in her life and has shaped it in many ways, outside of pushing its boundaries. Proudly sharing a music video of her singing traditional Hmong music, she shows the YouTube clip that’s gained around 1.5 million views.
“I just feel that it’s very important for me to pursue what I want to do,” Xiong says, “so other kids like me can chase their dreams instead of their parents’ dreams.”