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My educational journey: When the light bulb comes on

Master Sergeant Stephanie Strickland

Master Sergeant Stephanie Strickland

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- I never thought I would be an advocate for higher education since my educational journey most certainly did not begin with what I would consider a "scholar's start". Nonetheless, here I am preparing to begin my first semester as a full-time college student, 11 years after graduating from high school. It has not been a graceful journey, but ironically, an educational one.

People that have worked with me know me as a spirited "go-getter." I am passionate about my job, the importance of getting a Community College of the Air Force degree, finishing PME before the 11th hour, and getting involved in base and community activities. I think most people would be surprised to learn that I dropped out of high school during my senior year. My desire for immediate independence had clouded my better judgment and I found myself working endlessly to finance my first apartment. Needless to say, after discovering my two full-time minimum wage jobs were not covering the expenses of living on my own, I knew I needed to make a change and fast.

Five short months after I dropped out, I was back in high school -- only this time I had enrolled in an alternative school that would allow me to complete my high school degree requirements in time to graduate when I would have originally. The problem was that now I knew a little more about the cost of independence but still had zero desire to go to college. Additionally, I had three little brothers emulating my every move and I knew I had to set a good example for them.

That was why I initially made the decision to join the Air Force. I could begin a career, be independent, do something I loved, and set a great example for my brothers. I came from a patriotic family of Airmen: my grandfather, father and uncles were all proud enlisted members of the Air Force and now I would be one, too. So April 20, 2001, I left for Basic Military Training -- and wouldn't you know that every day since I left for BMT I have had to learn, study or test for something. This was not what I had expected. I thought I would join the Air Force, learn a job and smoothly sail for the rest of my days ... WRONG!

Immediately upon arriving at my first duty station, mentors began singing the "CCAF song," which contradicted why I had joined the AF -- to NOT go to college! Unfortunately, it was not until I became a supervisor and was conducting my first initial feedback session that the light bulb came on. I knew the words to say to be a good supervisor: "How far from your CCAF degree are you?" I was going to set this Airman on the path for success by having him "do as I say, not as I do." My Airman looked at me proudly and said, "I already have it, and I am just a few hours away from my bachelor's degree." In that moment I felt proud and embarrassed at the same time. I had been telling my supervisors and chiefs for years I was "working on it" or "just a few hours away," and here was a senior airman that had not only completed his CCAF degree, but was nearly finished with his bachelor's degree. I remember feeling inspired in that moment and I began for the first time to look at my peers and mentors. Where were they in their journey for higher education? Everyone I aspired to be like already had their CCAF degree and more often than not had completed their bachelor's or master's degree. I sought additional mentorship and became inspired to not just say I was working on it but to actually work on it and finish it! I enrolled in a local community college and completed my remaining three classes, and in six months I was awarded my associate degree in Allied Health Science through the Community College of the Air Force.

Now, I have a goal of becoming a Nurse Practitioner and already have many of my credits transferred so I'm even closer to my bachelor's and master degrees. But the BEST part of the light bulb coming on was the realization of how much I truly LOVE to learn and grow--not only in my skilled craft but as a leader and mentor for our Airmen. No more excuses. The pursuit of education has opened a whole new world for me, and it can open up one for you, too.