Award-winning Norwich woman aims to be a 'top gun'

Steve DownesShe already has an inspiring story to tell of hard work and against-the-odds educational success.Now Piya Das is hoping to write a new chapter by breaking into a male dominated world and becoming an RAF fighter pilot.Steve Downes

She already has an inspiring story to tell of hard work and against-the-odds educational success.

Now Piya Das is hoping to write a new chapter by breaking into a male dominated world and becoming an RAF fighter pilot.

And she has been given a big boost after being chosen from hundreds of thousands of people to be named the East of England vocational qualification learner of the year 2010.

For the 23-year-old from Wilberforce Road in the West Earlham area of Norwich, the award was both shocking and inspiring after seven years of struggle as she has chased her dream.

She came to Norwich with her parents, Debabrata and Barnali Das, in October 2002 as her father studied for a PhD at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Aged 16, Piya was sent to live with relatives in Luton, where she started and finished her GCSEs in six months. She then completed her A-levels in the standard two years at The Hewett School on Cecil Road, Lakenham.

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She completed a national diploma in electrical and electronic engineering at Norwich City College. On the course Piya was the only female, but she completed the course and went on to successfully apply for a place at Queen Mary University in London, where she is awaiting the 4th year of her aerospace engineering degree, which starts in October.

At the end of the course, she plans to join the RAF as a fighter pilot or an engineering officer.

But the apparently smooth progress through education masks an extraordinary story of struggling to stay on course.

She said: 'My mother has a visitor's visa, which has expired. She cannot work. My father is back in India. I have no financial support from my university.

'I also have no place to stay in London at the moment because of landlord problems. This award is the one piece of light that God has given me as a reason to smile again.'

She added: 'I have some savings that I put aside from four years of working at Debenhams. I now have a job cleaning for Serco at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

'I used to do 7pm to 7am nightshifts at Debenhams and then attend lectures at 9am at Norwich City College.

'During university term-time from October, I will be at Queen Mary University in London during the week.

'I will come home at weekends to work at the hospital to earn enough money to fund my continuing studies.'

She said the constant working to support herself had had an effect on her grades, saying: 'Although I am a good student, I could have done much better.'

She also spoke of her determination to breach the 'male dominated' world of the RAF.

She said: 'It is still very male dominated, so it will be tough. When I get to the interview stage for the RAF, I hope that I will be judged not on my sex, the colour of my skin or my passport, but on my ability to be an officer.

'My determination to join the RAF is extreme. It's the biggest fight of my life.'

She will pick up her prize at the VQ Learner of the Year Awards in London June 23, having been nominated for the regional award by Norwich City College.

The event, hosted by TV star Arlene Phillips, is taking place at London's Royal Horticultural Halls.

Piya said; 'I am feeling on top of the world. Determination is the key to success and if you work hard vocational qualifications can actually change your life.'

t For more information about VQ Day and the VQ Learner of the Year Awards, visit

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