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For Montville High School senior, it's only up from here

Montville — It’s a bird! It’s — Layla Wu piloting a plane?

How did a Montville High School senior get all the way up there? Typically, 17-year-olds don’t just find themselves controlling an aircraft as it glides over Groton. It took Wu a hefty bit of work and a heftier stubborn streak to satisfy her “weird obsession with the sky.”

“The feeling of taking off is like nothing else,” she said. “It’s so cool. I don’t even have anything to compare it to. The first time I took off, I was like, ‘Woah, I want to experience this for the rest of my life.’”

Wu will be the first in her family to go to college, attending the University of Connecticut in the fall. She was not expected to be so bold in her career choice; her parents knew she was artistic and had hoped she’d snag an office job to that effect, maybe as a graphic designer. She still loves and practices art — often finding herself painting yet another picture prominently featuring the sky — but says her purpose is to pilot.

Multiple AP classes and extracurriculars, such as playing on the tennis team, did not slow Wu’s progress. Amid the rigors of her junior year of high school, when students typically scramble to secure grades good enough and extracurriculars varied enough to attend the college of their choice, Wu’s head was in the clouds. To fund her expensive flight training at Groton-New London Airport, and partly to prove to her parents she was serious about this flying thing, Wu took a job in New York City as a dental assistant. She said it was challenging waking up at 5 a.m. every Saturday to take a bus into Chinatown and she had to deal with a difficult boss, but it gave her real-world experience and helped convince her parents of the sincerity of her intentions.

Wu eventually took a job more suited to her — she’s happily a Starbucks barista.

While UConn doesn’t have a flying program, it does have a flight club, which Wu is excited about. And though she plans to major in psychology, her ultimate objective is to be a commercial or private pilot — she says it doesn’t matter which, as long as she’s flying.

The American airline industry is white-male dominated, Wu said, and she wants to help change that as a Chinese-American woman. Her Chinese identity is important to her and her parents, who immigrated with her to the United States when she was very young. She learned the Mandarin language during nine years of Chinese school growing up.

Wu said she sometimes felt out of place at the predominantly white Montville High. She said her group of friends, who are also Chinese, are her support system.

"When I was younger, I wanted to become white,” Wu said. “It sounds bad, but it was something I struggled with, and now I’ve definitely embraced the Chinese side of me. It’s always a struggle between the two cultures. In high school I felt separated from other kids because I was different.”

Friend and classmate Michelle Kwong said she’s known Wu since second grade. Just as Wu said her friends “sculpted her” into who she is now, Kwong called Wu “one of the best people I’ve ever met." They bonded over common interests, and Kwong said they can understand each other without saying anything.

“I think Layla's passion for flying is very admirable since not many females have an interest in flying, and I'm proud of her,” Kwong wrote in an email.

The stress of being the first in her family to go to college and wanting to do something meaningful with her life to repay her parents’ sacrifices also linger on Wu’s mind.

“I feel a lot of pressure, not from my parents, but from myself because of the expectations I have,” Wu said. “That’s always something I think about. I constantly remind myself to work hard because of them. I feel guilty sometimes when I skip a homework assignment, those little things when there’s stuff I didn’t do that I was expected to do.”

Still, she has a singular focus on her aspirations. She said if a career as a pilot precludes her from having a family, so be it.

Montville High Math and Science Department Chair Hollyann Moriarty said Wu is a “quiet leader.” She described Wu’s dedication and highlighted her intelligence, kindness and empathy.

“In Environmental Club, when we needed to contact an administrator or an outside-of-school resource, her peers would always look at her and she would volunteer to contact the person,” Moriarty wrote in an email. “They picked the right person, because she always followed through with her commitments.”

Moriarty also characterized Wu as rather shy and quiet, something Wu alluded to with the self-imposed label of “wallflower.” But don’t let her unassuming attitude fool you.

“She is very humble and some people might underestimate her,” Moriarty wrote. “I have had a lot of students in my 16 years at Montville High School, Layla will always be one of the most memorable. She follows her own path and works to meet all of her goals, at the same time remaining a loyal friend to her peers and maintaining a humble attitude.”

Wu, who would laugh nervously when complimented during a phone interview, considers herself lucky to enjoy the privilege of piloting.

“I feel like flying is an escape,” she said. “Schoolwork is overwhelming sometimes; whenever I fly, I forget about that. I just look at the clouds, be in the air, stay in the moment.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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