Why is this topic so meaningful to me? I’ll share just a few snippets from my own journey in accessing opportunities.I was born overseas and I had a very “atypical” upbringing, so when I finally came to live in the US at the age of 19, I’d only formally completed a sixth-grade education. I quickly realized that my scholastic background severely limited my potential career options, so within several months of arriving in the US, I took and passed the General Education Development (GED) test and joined the Air Force.
In 1998, following my first couple of military assignments, I finally mustered the courage to register for my first college course with the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), using my military tuition assistance benefits. I was an active-duty military member, which meant I was already working full-time, and in my mid-twenties when I got started, so I was a “non-traditional student.” I knew I was coming from behind academically, and I’d have a long, long way to go to “catch up.” Because I was uncertain about my ability to succeed in taking college-level classes, I took just one speech class that the first semester, so I was excited to earn my first “A” grade in the course. The next year, I decided I could handle two classes at once, and the following year, three at a time. Due to my deficient formal educational background, especially in math and science subjects, I was required to take both “Elementary Algebra” and “Intermediate Algebra” before I could even qualify to complete “College Algebra” and satisfy the Basic College-Level Skills requirement for my undergraduate degree (I later learned during my graduate studies that needing to pay for and take remedial courses that “don’t count” can be a significant factor in why some individuals don’t complete their college studies, but I was fortunate to have tuition assistance benefits that paid for the majority of my undergraduate studies).
With my confidence buoyed after a few successful semesters, I’d set a new, more ambitious goal: I decided to finish my degree and apply for a commissioning program to become an Air Force Officer. However, since I’d merely taken one class that first semester of 1998, and then had only completed two classes per semester during the fall of 1999 and the spring of 2000, I knew I needed to get creative and find alternate ways to accelerate my studies if I was going to have any chance at completing my bachelor’s degree during the rest of my time in Alaska. To accomplish this, I became an avid researcher of the academic catalogs and the policies and processes within the university’s programs. By the time I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree in Russian Language from UAA in the Spring of 2003, I’d not only amassed 88 credits through the university, but I’d also earned eight additional natural science credits through academic petitions, and 52 credits through the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) testing and the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), which allowed me to apply for the commissioning program the following year.
Throughout my undergraduate studies, I developed and honed invaluable skills in researching, identifying, and demystifying academic and organizational requirements, policies and processes, that I’ve since applied to my subsequent graduate studies, pursuing and earning the Project Management Professional (PMP) and Professional in Human Resources (PHR) credentials, and in accessing other, sometimes obscure, organizational professional development and total rewards programs. The best part in all of this though is that I’ve been able to use these capabilities to guide and mentor others in doing the same.
My culminating assignment in the Air Force was as Instructor of English, Study Skills, and Honors, an Academic Advisor, and Dean’s Executive Assistant at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School, where the mission is, “to motivate, prepare, and evaluate selected candidates in an academic, military, moral, and physical environment, to perform successfully and enhance diversity at the Air Force Academy.” Nearly 20 years before, I’d begun my Air Force journey with a sixth-grade education and a GED, and I was able to close out my time, serving others who came from similar backgrounds who wouldn’t have otherwise had access to those opportunities—they were prior-enlisted service members, first-generation college students, English Language Learners, etc.
Many years ago, during my time at UAA, I purchased a bookmark that featured a quote from Epictetus: “Only the educated are free.” That maxim became my mantra and the impetus for my educational and professional pursuits over the years. When I think about what it means to be “educated,” I see it as any learning event, program, or experience, whether it’s a formal higher education program or otherwise, that can propel an individual to that “next level,” enhancing their quality of life and their overall sense of well-being, not only for themselves but also their family members.
Being “free” means having options and choices. Discovering, accessing, and maximizing opportunities transformed my life, and there is no greater reward for me personally than being a conduit who helps another individual access an opportunity that leads to greater freedom in even just one aspect of their life.