Aiming for the stars, Ananya Arora is an aviation mechanic in the US Army, with a beauty crown to her credit.
It was February 1, 2003, and the world had its eyes trained on space shuttle Columbia. Upon its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, the space shuttle disintegrated over Texas, US, killing all those on board.
With the world, India mourned the death of Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-origin astronaut, and an inspiration to many.
In Delhi, 12-year-old Ananya Arora witnessed the crash on television with her grandfather and wanted to know all about the crash, space, what Nasa was, and was determined to be an astronaut. Seeing the night sky fill up with stars, Ananya dreamt to be in space one day.
Fourteen years on, Ananya did follow up on her dream and is now an aeronautical engineer in the US Air Force. Her journey, however, was anything but easy.
Hailing from Delhi, Ananya says she was not very studious. “To be in the field of aerospace, you have to be a nerd. I was never one. Though I scored decent marks in exams, I was never the brightest. I was into extra-curricular activities.”
For her 12th standard, Ananya went to a boarding school in Mussoorie. Recalling her admission at the school, Ananya says, “The school principal saw my mark sheet and asked me not take science. But I was adamant to take science as my option as I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. Seeing my passion, the principal put me into the science stream with a condition that he will keep a close look into my scores, and if I was not able to cope, I will have to take commerce.”
Ananya scored 80 percent in her board exams, following which, she went on to study at the American University in Sharjah as her father, who was in the merchant navy and was posted there. She took up mechanical engineering and a minor in aerospace.
Ananya soon realised that her course did not focus on aerospace, and she again started looking up courses in the US. She applied and got through to the Wichita State University. “I did one semester extra as my credits were transferred, and luckily I got admission in Wichita. I chose this university as it was the air capital, and I studied aerospace engineering here.”
Ananya was also passionate about dancing and being on stage. “During all this, I got super crazy. I participated in the pageant Miss Asian Festival for Wichita. It helped me showcase Indian culture, and gave me a scholarship for college.”
While participating in the pageant, Ananya spoke about the general stereotypes that Indians face.
“I used to get a lot of questions on whether India was Egypt. In America, people consider an Asian only as Japanese, Korean or Chinese, which always frustrated me. The only time Indians realise they are Asian is when they fill out forms.”
Others wanted to know why Ananya was participating in a pageant when she was an engineer. “I used to answer, I am a female, and why can't I be in a pageant?"
She won the pageant and as part of the same got the opportunity to visit a few schools in different place in Kansas and represent India and Asia. “The experience was amazing because I had to tell the young kids about India and its culture. That was the time when an earthquake struck Nepal and I could raise money at that time for it.”
The year she graduated from college, she couldn’t get a job and instead took up an internship with Gulfstream Aerospace.
She was still looking for a job when she came across a programme in the US army that hired international citizens.
“The criteria for this programme was that I should know Hindi, so I had to test in Hindi, which was the most amazing part. They had to see how proficient I was in the language, and with that, I was selected in the Army. Then, I had to pass tests for the job that I am doing in the Army.”
Ananya is a maintainer for Apache helicopters in the US Army. She chose an enlisted job as,
“Even if I was an engineer, I was not allowed to be an officer as I am not a US citizen. At that time, I did not care even if it was a lower rank job. I joined as a mechanic for aircraft.”
She got a US citizenship after joining the Army. “I was promoted in less than two years, which is unusual. I applied for the officer programme, and was selected recently. I can be an aeronautical engineer in the US Air Force as I am an officer.”
She adds it is not easy for women in the Army. There are only two female mechanics in her company, and she adds, “My job involves turning wrenches, picking up stuff, and it’s hard because you have to prove yourself.”
“In my head, it really helped as I had to prove myself as guys generally have the mentality - they know mechanics better.”
For now, Ananya says there are miles to go and she is determined to make her mark.
“If I don’t get selected, it’s okay, but if I don’t try, I would regret it all my life,”
This has been and continues to be Ananya’s mantra for life.