Hi! My name is Layla, I am a mechanical engineering major. I am from France, and before the pandemic, I was a pastry chef

by Layla Xholi

Crafting sweet masterpieces: Pastry Chef Layla Xholi shapes a chocolate showpiece, blending artistry and structural precision in a creation made exclusively of chocolate.

It is very common for the first class of a semester to start with an “icebreaker”. Most students dread this and struggle to find a fun fact that they would love to share with the rest of the class, but I am always confident nobody will share the same fun fact as me.

I was born and raised in France, where I went to high school and college. I grew up in a suburb of Paris. I was very lucky because I had access to a plethora of museums. My older sister used to take me and my twin sister to a different one every other weekend. I loved it, I always loved science. The Museum of Natural History and its planetarium counted among my favorite places. While most kids played sports on Wednesday afternoons, I would go to the library and grab any book that caught my attention. I would always ask questions; I was annoyingly curious and, frankly, my mother was getting a little tired of me always asking why. She had no answer for me.

You see, my family was from Normandy a region deeply affected by both World Wars. Neither my grandparents nor my great-grandparents got to finish high school. Much like her parents, my mother had to work from a young age. College was never an option for any of them.

My only way to answer the “why” questions I had was to find out the answers myself; I wanted to become a biologist or a chemist, but I was never really good at mathematics. I went to school in what the French government calls a priority education area; a school surrounded by projects requiring extra educational funding. Despite that, there wasn’t much tutoring available, and I ended up without a teacher for a few months.

In France, school is free and accessible, but we are required to pick a path very early on with the approval of our professors. We graduate from high school with a concentration in either mathematics, literature, or economic and sociologic studies. This latter was my concentration. I had a natural ability with languages, and my professors pushed me toward a literary path. No science for me.

I went to college to study cinema and then Russian. I eventually obtained a bachelor’s in American studies from the Sorbonne. I loved school each and every time. I became the family joke at every Christmas dinner. “Layla? Yep still at school”. I didn’t mind though. My twin sister was born with cerebral palsy, and she had way fewer choices than me. I always saw my options as a blessing and tried out everything. She couldn’t, so I had to explore for the both of us.

My years spent at the Sorbonne were some of the happiest of my life. I read Shakespeare and learned linguistics, but I was not able to take a science elective. The system works differently. I investigated the option of transitioning to a science career, but it would have required me to go back to high school which was virtually impossible. I picked the second closest thing to science I could think of: pastry.

Pastry chefs work in a lab, they have to be meticulous, precise, and organized, and as bonus, you get to go home smelling like vanilla. I made my decision while I was a Sorbonne student. My professors supported my choice and helped me secure an internship. I reached out to many pastry shops. Usually in France, one starts their culinary career at 14 years old as vocational training, so this was already considered a professional reconversion.

I received only one positive answer from none other than Pierre Hermé’s pastry shop. Monsieur Pierre Hermé is a national treasure, a man nicknamed the “Picasso of pastry”. As a bit of foreshadowing, he also happened to be the first pastry chef to ever send macarons to the International Space Station when Thomas Pesquet the French astronaut was onboard with Peggy Whitson. My internship was a revelation, it was hard and exhausting, but I was thriving. The kitchen is a very fair environment, the harder you work the better you get. This internship eventually opened the doors to Ferrandi the best culinary school in France.

A few years later, I immigrated to the United States, and I was offered a chef position very quickly. I worked in several restaurants and ended up working at the Marriott in Times Square for 3 years. I loved every day spent there; I learned how to sculpt chocolate and I even started competing. I won a cupcake grand prize and was looking for a coach to try the US pastry competition, but I remember always telling my coworkers how much I wanted to go back to college. I felt like I wasn’t at my full potential.

Like many people, I found myself lost when the lockdown happened amid the pandemic. For the first time, I had nothing to do… That’s when I read a post from Thomas Pesquet, the French astronaut who said that lockdown was the closest thing to astronaut training there could be. It changed my mindset. What I saw as a punishment became an opportunity. After talking to one of my friends, I started studying on Khan Academy every day and began with Algebra. I did it religiously every single day for two months straight, sometimes spending 7 hours solving problems. While everyone learned to make sourdough, the pastry chef was learning math. That’s when I decided to apply to school again. Engineering was almost a natural choice. I could study just about any science and figure out ways of solving problems. I could reverse-engineer things and see how they worked!

I first spoke to the head of the engineering department at City College who looked terrified by my transcripts. It was a clear “no” at the time. I applied to all CUNY schools and got rejected from every program in physics or engineering. I cannot blame anyone as my math grades were scary. LaGuardia was the only school that accepted me, which turned out to be a blessing. I had a Zoom meeting with Professor Yves Ngabonziza, the head of the engineering department at LaGuardia right after the one with City College. He said to me: “it doesn’t matter what your level is now, you take one course at a time, and if it doesn’t work, you try again”. And so, my journey began in the Summer of 2020.

I took my first Honors Physics course with Professor Roman Senkov, who is one of those professors who manages to change your life in the most amazing way without being aware of it. I had loads of homework and a research project which involved using a coding language I knew nothing about at that time. I was breathing physics; I was solving the Schrödinger equation or locating Lagrange points in binary star systems. It was not easy but when I started grasping these complicated subjects, I gained tremendous confidence in my capabilities. Professors have this ability to get the best or the worst out of you, and LaGuardia Community College is filled with the kind of professors who care, who teach you and guide you.

I am not naturally smart; I need to work long hours to get good grades and I still make silly mistakes today. Everyone does. What I needed and what a lot of students like me need is the support that schools like LaGuardia Community College offer.

I cannot express what this college has represented to me. I was a President Society Environment Ambassador and started engaging in climate activism. I became a National Institute of Health Bridges scholar and did nuclear physics research. The stipends both programs provided me with enabled me to focus on my studies. I was also part of the ASAP program, and my advisor, Jose, supported me beyond what I could have asked for. I took part in the physics club and attended moon observation events. I saw the rings of Saturn through a telescope on my birthday.

I am now in my junior year at City College as a Mechanical Engineering major with a minor in Physics. They accepted me the second time around. After all, I got my associate’s degree with a 3.98 GPA and high honors. I am an active member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Club. The girl who used to make chocolate sculptures and pastries now works on making remote-controlled planes. She who was bad at math, tutors other students who struggle just like she did.

I am very proud of how far I have come. My path was anything but linear and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t terrifying at times, but being a pastry chef taught me that anything can be done; you just have to follow the recipe one step at a time.