Fresno aircraft mechanic program student succeeds against all odds
There were three potential handicaps that could prevent Sophia Leide from doing well in SJVC’s Aviation Maintenance Technology program in Fresno. She was young. At 17 years old, she had just completed her high school graduation requirements. As a home-schooled student, she had not been in a classroom environment for a few years and – here’s the kicker – she was not exactly mechanically inclined.
“Actually, I never touched a motor and never touched an engine at all,” says Sophia. “I never even knew what a spark plug was. I could explain everything about a spark plug, I just didn’t know what it looked like.”
One more potential disadvantage: Sophia wanted to enter a male-dominated industry and compete for jobs against many who had worked in a mechanical environment all their lives.
None of that seemed to bother her. “I have a whole family of adventurers,” she says. Her parents are business owners who always encouraged her to act on her curiosity and find answers to her questions. Her older sister Katie had gotten her pilot’s license at age 18.
Sophia got to spend one high school semester with Katie, who works as a civilian contractor for NavAir. “I decided I wanted to know how planes work, why a plane flew, what happens on the inside,” says Sophia. She did some research online and found a few schools.
Sophia called two aviation schools out of California that appealed to her. “As soon as they learned I was in high school and not male, and realized how young I was, they sort of stopped trying to be helpful.”
She and her parents decided to visit SJVC’s aircraft mechanic program on the Aviation campus in Fresno, a six-hour drive from her family home in Redding. “They (staff and faculty) made me feel like part of the SJVC family,” says Sophia. “They said, ‘You want to be a mechanic? OK, let’s make you a mechanic.’”
When Sophia and her parents got back home, they sat around the dining room table to make a life-changing decision. “We talked about why I was interested in the program, the logistics, where I would live, and they gave me their full support.”
She and her mom made one more trip to the campus to finalize enrollment and, when Sophia completed high school a few months later, she moved into a one-bedroom apartment about 15 minutes from campus.
“I moved in on a Sunday and two days later started classes,” says Sophia.
There was no time for a period of adjustment. “It was honestly more than I thought it would be,” she admits. “I knew going in that I would be at a slight disadvantage because I knew nothing about mechanics, but they never made me feel that I was at a disadvantage.”
The program demonstrates a kind of “no student left behind” approach to learning. “They never moved on until they made sure you understood it,” says Sophia. “Or they would give you the tools so that over the weekend you could really study it, and they would be available if you needed more help. Their answer was never, ‘Figure it out;’ it was always, ‘Ok, let’s figure this out.’”
The first few weeks are spent primarily in the classroom. “You get the baseline knowledge, the theory behind A & P (Airframe and Power Plant) before you go to the hangar,” says Sophia. “It improved my confidence and kept me from feeling I was thrown into the deep end. It gives you a really strong foundation.”
The hangar is where all the big pieces come into play, and the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport visuals and sound effects add all the drama and inspiration a future aviation tech could want. “Anytime the jets would fly over, I’d close my eyes and smile,” says Sophia.
It didn’t take long for her to hit her stride. “I really loved sheet metal,” she says. “We spent two months taking apart and putting back together a reciprocating engine. At the very end, you get to take the engine that your team built onto a run-stand. Mr. Simmons takes it out on the tarmac and hooks it to the ground, so it doesn’t fly away, and you run it for a minute and a half. We check compressions and see if all the cylinders operate properly. The coolest part was when we stood there, and the engine actually started. It was awesome.”
Sophia earned a 3.79 GPA, perfect attendance, and the respect of her fellow classmates and instructors. “I woke up every morning excited to go to school,” she says.
She had a lot of support along the way. “I come from a very large Italian family, so I know the ‘I care about you, so I’m going to push a little bit.’ That’s how I saw SJVC; just a really big family. They want you to land on your feet, wherever you want that to be.”
“Sophia came to the program with no real engine, tools, or experience with the type of things learned in the program,” says Diane Findley, Admissions Advisor. “She has excelled, as well, in her increased confidence and skill. She is always positive, happy and helpful.”
Sophia recently completed the Aviation Maintenance Technology program and is looking forward to launching the career of her dreams. “I’m young so I’m not really looking for a huge, flashy job,” she says. “I’m looking more for what will give me a sense of adventure and satisfaction. I want to go to work and come home and feel really awesome about what I’ve done.
No one doubts Sophia will land perfectly.
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