Leadership Ideas, Information and News

Monday, December 03, 2012

My educational journey: Mentors, supervisors, and peers make a difference

by Capt. Robby Gallegos
31st Test and Evaluation Squadron

12/3/2012 - EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- I enlisted in the United States Air Force in February 2000 at the young age of 19. Unlike many of our young troops today, I entered with no post-high school education -- not to mention I was married with a son on the way. I had enlistment goals of learning a trade as well as technical training, to include a college education. A college degree would be a milestone in my family. Nobody before me had achieved that accomplishment.

I was an Aircraft Armament Systems Specialist, better known as a "load toad" or "weapons loader." In the beginning, life was very demanding. I was trying to juggle a new family, adjust to a strange new environment (the military), and knock out those dreaded Career Development Courses. Off-duty education was the last thing on my mind. As time went on, the job became more demanding because of September 11th, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Noble Eagle. I was constantly TDY and working long hours. Four years went by in a heartbeat, and I hadn't taken a single step towards a college education.

In 2004, I was selected to work at the elite Weapons Standardization Section. It was a demanding job, but the duty hours were a little more predictable and stable. Staff Sgt. Dale King became my immediate supervisor, and he remains one of the best supervisors I have had in my 13-year career. He did what was expected of our NCOs: he was my mentor, leader and motivator. During our performance feedback session he told me what was expected of me, stressing concern for my future growth and personal achievement. This was the first time someone sat me down and discussed off-duty education. It wasn't about building up fodder to win quarterly or annual awards, it was about me. To this day I still remember the words he used: "Don't wait, take advantage of your time now." Anybody who has been in the Air Force for a good amount of years knows he was speaking the truth. Throughout the years, with increased rank and responsibility, comes a dramatic decrease in personal time, especially when working at a fighter aircraft base on the flight-line. Sergeant King took the time to inform me where to go, how to enroll and even what degree to pursue. As a staff sergeant, I enrolled in my first class through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Extended Campus. Motivation and inspiration wasn't hard to get because Sergeant King took classes with me. So my educational journey began. It wasn't long until I was knocking classes out, and along the way there was Sergeant King asking, "What class is next?" After every term, he always came back to me and told me what was coming up. The motivation was so profound that, at one point, nearly all personnel in the section were pursuing off-duty education.

When I had to PCS in 2006 to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, I was only one class away from my Community College of the Air Force degree and about six from my bachelor's degree. Again, with the transition to a new base, a new home and new people, my educational motivation decreased. I was very fortunate to have a peer from my last duty station PCS to Elmendorf with me. He had the motivation to finish his bachelor's degree and go to Officer Training School. In some sort of way he was my "competition" to finish my degree first. Even though he ultimately finished before me, he kept me inspired to finish mine.

Officer Training School was the last thought on my mind during my eight years as an enlisted man, but I always had the desire and determination to lead and guide. I wanted to be involved in decision making processes and make stuff happen. Looking back, there were many variables which ultimately inspired me to submit a package to OTS, but without the educational foundation it couldn't happen. In 2007, I was selected for OTS, completed my bachelor's - graduating summa cum laude -- and my CCAF degree -- receiving a Pitsenbarger Award.

Once I was a United States Air Force officer, my educational journey didn't end. Once again, with strong supervision and mentorship, I was pushed to pursue my master's degree. With the strong foundation implanted by Sergeant King years back, I didn't need much motivation. Despite the demanding duty as an officer, I did what I had to do and worked with the little time I had and got it done. There were times I had to pause for Professional Military Education, TDYs and training, but I picked right up. All that remains is a thesis that I'm working on now.

Looking back at my educational journey and my Air Force career, I wouldn't be where I am today without the strong mentors, supervisors and peers. If there wasn't a Staff Sgt. King during my journey (now Senior Master Sgt. King), I can't imagine where I would be today. Would I have a bachelor's degree or a CCAF degree? Sometimes, all it takes is some involvement in your troop's lives. It could make a significant difference.

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