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 and 5-foot-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.”

However, her success thus far did not come easily.

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.”

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.”

She learned she could go to the school guidance office to get application fee waivers and took advantage of that benefit.

“The point is, there are resources,” she said. “You don’t need to know everything. Your parents don’t need to know everything, but people at the high school can help you.”

She told the students Colby College has a program that will help them prepare for the SAT tests free of charge.

“Do it,” Pleau said. “I never did an SAT prep thing. I wish I would have. It’s really important. Even though I didn’t, I still got into college and I got into a lot of places, and in the end, I had to go to a place that would give me the most money.”

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 not 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.”

POSITIVE INFLUENCES

Pleau was fortunate to have had good friends in high school, and their parents were professionals — doctors, lawyers and Colby College professors. Those parents, along with school staff, helped her to navigate the path to college.

“I didn’t know what SATs were and my mom was not in the picture,” she said. “Everybody at Waterville High School was so helpful.”

She also did not have health insurance. She went to the high school nurse, Ann Bouchard, to ask what to do. Not only did Bouchard help Pleau maneuver health care needs, she also became a mentor. A former nurse in the Air Force, Bouchard became an important influence in Pleau’s life.

“I wanted to be an astronaut and I said, ‘How do I get there?'” Pleau recalled asking Bouchard. “She advised I go to college and major in physics. I was trying to find out, how do I get into space? I’d just look up at the stars and sob, like why can’t I be there? I probably won’t make it to another star, but I’ll settle for Mars.”

Bouchard, the school’s nurse for 17 years, was in the audience when Pleau spoke Thursday.

The next day, she said she had gone home Thursday night and couldn’t stop thinking about Pleau’s speech. The remarkable thing was, many school staff and students who were at Waterville High when Pleau attended likely did not have a clue about her situation and why she spent so much time at school.

“She just was so self-directed and motivated, and nobody would have guessed she was so under-resourced,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard, who spent a lot of time with Pleau during her high school years, was unaware of the impact she had on her.

“It’s funny how it works sometimes. Somebody’s in your room at the right moment, and it just clicks and a cascade of events just happen,” she said. “Seeing her yesterday was kind of emotional, actually. It makes you feel what you do every day sometimes does make a difference.”

Bouchard is confident Pleau can do whatever she sets her mind to do.

“I think the need for her to fend for herself has empowered her to such a degree,” she said. “She could have not wanted to be here in school, too, if there weren’t people here who showed her attention. The takeaway is that there are good people in the world who help other people succeed. You never know what a small amount of attention or care will do to someone. I told her before she left that for me, the Air Force was such an amazing experience with so many opportunities. I likened it to college because so many young people are in the same position. There are going to be so many opportunities, and take every one you can because you never know what road it’s going to take you down.”

After receiving a standing ovation from the crowd Thursday, Pleau joined some teachers for lunch in the science department.

Department Chairman Martha Cobb, who teaches physical science, anatomy, biology and advanced placement biology, said before lunch that Pleau was a hard worker in school and always wanted to understand and interact with the material she was studying.

“She definitely knew that education was her way to improve her life circumstances,” said Cobb, who is in her 28th year teaching.

During the lunch, Pleau and the teachers spoke about all sorts of things, including the fact that students may have a difficult home life but can find refuge and support in school. Pleau said that at Smith, an all-women’s college, she felt somewhat out of place.

“I’m very glad I got to study physics,” she said. “I took astrophysics and black holes at Amherst College, and I was one of only two women in the class. I’m glad I got to be free in my education. I got a great education, going to physics conferences which were mostly men. One in 100 were women. I had no idea that physics was such a male-dominated field. You have to be strong.”

Biology teacher Jody Veilleux wished Pleau good luck in her future endeavors.

“You’ll be awesome,” she said. “You’re well on your way.”

Chemistry and Science Olympiad teacher Jon Ramgren recalls Pleau was a very conscientious student and dedicated member of Science Olympiad.

“One of the events that she did for Science Olympiad was the Elastic Launch Glider,” Ramgren said. “This involved building a glider out of balsa wood, paper and foam. There were very specific criteria to follow when building the glider.”

He said building it took about 10 hours and Pleau tested it by letting the glider drop or by gently launching it by hand. She could get the glider to perform the way all of the references said one should be able to under those launch conditions, but it was more difficult when launching from an elastic band.

“As soon as she tried to launch it with any force from the elastic band, the glider would nosedive and self destruct on impact,” Ramgren recalled. “This meant building another glider. It was very frustrating because none of them survived long enough to really learn from what had been done from one run to the next. Mollie persevered and did compete in the event. She was not happy with her results, but she did not give up.”

In another school year, Pleau competed in an event where students had to build a helicopter out of balsa, and it was powered with an elastic band.

“This was much more workable than the elastic launch glider, and she was able to tweak her design and see the effect of each change,” Ramgren said. “For both events she worked with a partner, but she took the lead each time.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

acalder@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @AmyCalder17