Reaching New Heights – student trades computers for airplanes to embrace personal passion
Despite schooling, internships, and teaching opportunities to enter the computer science field, Satya Sunkavalli ultimately determined the path she had been following wasn’t the right one to achieve the career heights she truly desired.
Those heights are routinely 20,000 feet or more off the ground.
“Watching birds fly inspired me to think about the nature of flying and the traits of airplanes,” Sunkavalli says. “Being a pilot is very well respected in India, so over time I became interested in becoming one and also in building a small kit airplane.” Ivy Tech Community College Northeast is helping one of those passions take flight through its Aviation Maintenance Technology program, where Sunkavalli is earning an associate degree.
Sunkavalli came to the U.S. on a student visa in late 2010 with the intent to earn a pilot certification. She enrolled in a flight program at another institution in Indiana before personal obstacles prevented her from completing her studies in a 20-month timeframe, so she transferred to a comparable flight program in Florida with the hope of finishing in a shorter time period. Despite a solid performance on the oral portion of her practical test, she failed the flight portion.
“I was so discouraged and disappointed with myself,” Sunkavalli says. “But there are always challenges in life. You just can’t give up. Doing something a little different after this was a great way to regain my confidence.”
With that renewed spirit, she placed her pilot-training goal on hold and enrolled at Ivy Tech Northeast in early 2013 to study aviation from a mechanical perspective. She has experienced clear skies since the decision.
“I get to learn something new every day,” Sunkavalli says. “Every one of us in the program shares the same aspiration to work on airplanes, learn more about airplanes, and be a part of aviation.”
Aviation Maintenance Technology instructor Brad Stark has taught Sunkavalli in three of his classes to date, with course content ranging from aircraft fuel systems to sheet metal fabrication.
“She has a good grasp on what she’s learning in the moment, she tries hard to apply the principles, and she helps fellow students if they have questions,” Stark says.
Sunkavalli has made her participation and leadership presence known on campus in other ways. She is the newly elected vice president of the Student Government Association and is a member of the Campus Activities Board and the Multicultural Student Organization. Assistant Director of Diversity Affairs Diana Jackson is among her strongest supporters.
“Can I just say she’s an amazing person?” Jackson says. “Satya has been very aggressive in her studies and is currently carrying a 3.7 GPA. On a personal level, she is very kind, soft spoken, and cares a lot about people.”
Sunkavalli is also engaged in inspiring current and future aviators. She’s an advisor for the Aviation Explorer Post 2035 and the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles Youth Program, both based at Smith Field in Fort Wayne. Sunkavalli also takes pride in her association with the local chapter of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots founded by 99 licensed women pilots in 1929. Aviation icon Amelia Earhart served as the group’s first president.
Following her anticipated graduation next spring, Sunkavalli says she wants to persist with becoming a certified pilot and also be among the first to apply for work at GE Aviation’s new $100 million, next-generation jet engine assembly facility currently being built in Lafayette, Ind. GE Aviation spokespeople have said most new hires for the top jobs are expected to earn $36 per hour or nearly $75,000 a year.
“Working at a global company like GE would be a great networking opportunity and help me stay on course with aviation and everything I’m looking for in my career,” Sunkavalli says.
And her resilience in the face of an initial setback provides a new spin on what it means to aim high.