Post-graduation hopes in the air

Friends can come from the most unlikely places.

In this pair, one's an East Coaster with her head in the clouds (literally) while the other is just a few years removed from a refugee camp half a world away.

But Sequim High School seniors - make that, graduated high school seniors - Renee Brilhante and Dung Quach made it work.

Brilhante graduates from Sequim High with more than $220,000 in scholarships, tops among her class. That toal includes $180,000 in scholarships from the U.S. Navy ROTC Scholarship.

She's headed to Jacksonville University in Florida to study aviation, a field she says she fell in love with shortly after getting lost in Seattle's Museum of Flight at age 8.

"It's the ability to go in any direction I want," Brilhante says, describing her passion for flying.

On her radar is a career as a fighter pilot, fueled in part with her five years of service with the Civil Air Patrol, a civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force.

In 2007, she took part in the Washington Wings Flight Academy as a glider student, logging 34 flights and a solo in a glider.

Brilhante, whose family moved to the area from Boston when she was 3 years old, is working toward a private pilot's license - one she hopes to have by wintertime - and holds leadership positions with the air patrol.

Brilhante is considering a career in politics or a commanding military spot - but only after piloting an F-35, a stealth, supersonic military jet.

Quach had her life change by flight, too. Her parents lived in Vietnam but fled the controlling communists, leaving the country by boat to a refuge camp in Malaysia, where Quach was born.

It was in that camp where she spent the first five years of her life.

"It wasn't the best of memories," she says now, recalling that she and her family members weren't allowed to leave the camp.

Quach's family was forced to return to Vietnam but thanks to a family connection they were able to leave Asia in 1998 and come to the United States. Their first stop? Minnesota, where Quach and her family first saw snow.

"I hate it - I always fall and trip," Quach says with a laugh.

With almost no money to speak of, a local church helped them get on their feet. After eight months, Quach's family made the move to Sequim.

Quach had to learn a new language and a new culture.

"Learning English was hard for me at first - it was really challenging," she said.

Now Quach wants to become a doctor. Her first step is to Bellevue Community College, then the University of Washington and finally to a doctorate.

Then she plans a return to Vietnam to help the poor.

"I've been poor," Quach says. "I hate how people look down on us."

Quach and Brilhante met in ninth grade but didn't become the strong friends they are now until their junior and senior years.

Now, the sky is the limit for both of them.

Reach Michael Dashiell at

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