WATERVILLE — Mollie Pleau has heard it many times: “A woman majoring in physics? A woman entering the U.S. Air Force to study to be a nuclear physicist? Don’t you know you’ll never be able to compete with the men? That your chances of becoming an astronaut are nil?”

If anything, statements like that make Pleau want to work harder, push further.

She may be only 22 years old and 5 feet 2 inches tall, but she is a giant in the eyes of those who know her – and she believes the sky’s the limit.

She said as much Thursday to the more than 600 students, staff and faculty who packed the auditorium at Waterville Senior High School where she told her story about succeeding despite adverse circumstances.

The energetic, articulate, raven-haired Pleau graduated from Waterville High in 2013 with a grade point average of 4.106.

This year she graduated from Smith College with a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy, and on Sunday she headed to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. There, she will attend officer training school with the aim of graduating as a nuclear physicist and becoming an astronaut one day.

“It’s everything I’ve ever wanted,” she said after her short speech. “It’s surreal. It’s like a dream come true.”

But her success thus far did not come easily.

Mollie Pleau told students at Waterville High, “Don’t let other people set your limits.” Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

A FLOOD OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Pleau said she grew up in a toxic household and, as a high schooler, did not want to go home after classes ended, so she devised a way to prevent that from happening: She joined every club and activity the school had to offer, arriving at 7:15 a.m., doing track from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., taking part in Science Olympiad from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and performing in the pit orchestra for musicals until about 10 p.m. The Science Olympiad team advanced to the national competition while she was a member.

She took all college preparatory and advanced placement-level classes, joined the math team, became a cheerleader and three-season athlete, was on the track and swim teams, was inducted into the Thespian Honor Society, Tri-M Music Honor Society and National Honor Society and got into Upward Bound. In addition, she was a lifeguard at the Alfond Youth Center and volunteered in the emergency room at Franklin Memorial Hospital.

“If I could find activities to keep me in school as long as possible, that was ideal,” Pleau said. “I could be here doing things that I liked all day long, and staying involved has really helped me to make a life for myself and not have to be home. You don’t have to be from a really good background in order to be successful.”

DON’T LET OTHERS SET YOUR LIMITS

Upward Bound is a six-week program for low-income, first-generation students wanting to go to college, she said.

“I ended up doing Upward Bound because they told me they’d pay for college applications and SATs. I certainly wasn’t able to pay for my college applications. … It turns out they only pay for 10 applications. I just wanted to apply to everywhere.”

Two years ago, Pleau decided she would go into the Air Force after graduating from Smith, and she knew the Air Force would help with college debt. She reached out to a recruiter in Waterville, who put her in touch with the appropriate person, and applied to the Air Force in May 2016. She recently learned she was in.

“It’s been a very, very long time, but good things are worth waiting for,” she said.

She dismissed comments from people who said along the way that women can’t make it in fields dominated by men or that it is rare for a woman to become an astronaut.

“I didn’t think twice about it because it’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “Don’t let other people set your limits. If you want something, do it, because there are people around who will help you.”

Amy Calder can be contacted at 861-9247 or at:

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