When you’re around Priscilla, you’re going to smile. You’re going to smile a lot. I get the impression that’s why, even though Priscilla spoke little English when she met Sarah, the two immediately bonded.
Now, as I meet Priscilla, she’s laughing and chattering quickly – no communication barrier here. She and Sarah show off their Words with Friends scores (Priscilla’s winning this round) and talk about Priscilla’s job. She’s a cook at an 80 lane bowling alley in Indianapolis, where she goes to school at Vincennes University for Aviation Maintenance.
The two met shortly after Priscilla came to the United States as a refugee from Burma. Sarah, an Aerospace Engineer and aspiring astronaut, started volunteering at Hser Ner Moo, a United Way of Salt Lake Neighborhood Center for refugee families in South Salt Lake, when she was learning more about the Women's Leadership Council program. Before she joined, she wanted to see where her investment would make an impact. She tells me, “I went on a tour of a UWSL Neighborhood Center. It absolutely changed my life.” She asked if she could volunteer at the center, expecting to help with landscaping or painting. However, when Hser Ner Moo learned that she was obviously good at math and science due to her profession, they asked her to be a tutor. A few weeks later, Sarah met Priscilla.
Priscilla was playing at a friend's birthday party when a neighbor rode up on their bike. They told her and her siblings the government had gone to her home and arrested her parents for openly practicing their religion. The neighbor warned them to hide because the police were looking for them, also. Priscilla was 14-years-old at the time.
What followed was a period of hiding in family members' houses, escaping to Malaysia, and working to help support her family. In time, Priscilla’s uncle managed to hire an agent to send her and her siblings to Utah as refugees because of religious persecution. When she came to Utah, she says, "All I knew was... I'm free."
After arriving in Utah, Priscilla began attending Hser Ner Moo Neighborhood Center. That's where she met her new friend and tutor, Sarah. At the time, Priscilla spoke little English, but Sarah says when it came to math, there was no barrier; she sped through each assignment. They focused on improving her English also, but Priscilla says her first English teacher was actually... Taylor Swift. While living in Malaysia, to practice her English, she would get copies of Taylor Swift lyrics and using her Burmese dictionary, she would translate the songs from English to Burmese.
Sarah was the first person to ever ask Priscilla what she wanted to be when she grew up. Of course, before this, Priscilla had dreams and her parents had always encouraged her goals. But a big period of her life had been escaping from Burma, focusing on surviving, and worrying for her parents. Having someone ask her what she wanted to do was this new permission to focus on the future again. Priscilla told Sarah she wanted to be a pilot so that she could fly back to Burma and find her parents. Without hesitating, Sarah told Priscilla to go after her dream. And Sarah didn't just support Priscilla with encouraging words, though those are sometimes all we can give. Sarah took Priscilla to campus tours and college interviews. She helped her navigate the application process and was there to help her move to college when the time came.
Priscilla is currently working on getting her pilot’s license and completing school at Vincennes University Aviation Technology Center to become an aviation mechanic and engineer. Priscilla plans to be a missionary pilot, a job that comes with some added risk. Missionary pilots must know how to fly the plane, but also be capable of making any necessary repairs if the plane goes down in a remote area. By the time she graduates, she will be fully qualified to repair even Airbus A340s, the kind of plane you would likely fly in on a trip overseas. Priscilla tells me, in a way, she's been learning mechanics since she was young. Growing up she would help her dad work on his motorcycle. Get him the tools he needed. Watch him repair parts. While other students and friends of Priscilla’s are focused on interests outside of school, her priority is providing stability for herself so she can reach her goals of flying back to Burma and reuniting with her parents.
Sarah is the first to tell you that Priscilla is not afraid of taking risks.
When Priscilla was in high school, she tried out for the tennis team. Sounds simple enough. Sarah said, "I didn't want to discourage her or change her mind, but my first reaction was, 'But have you ever played tennis before?'" No. She hadn't played tennis before. But Priscilla wasn't discouraged by her disadvantage. In fact, she said that was even more reason to try out for the team--so that she could learn how to play. She ended up making the team, getting significant playing time, and receiving the award for Most Improved Player. That same fearless attitude seems to continuously take Priscilla on to exceptional achievements like being the only female student in her aviation program and getting her pilot license at such a young age.
Sarah gives Priscilla full credit for her accomplishments. "I never did anything extreme for Priscilla. I just made sure that any time she had a goal, that she also had the opportunity to achieve it," is how she puts it. When I asked Sarah what it is that drives her to volunteer, her answer was simple, "Helping others brings balance to my life."