Celebrating Black History Month: The weight of my culture

  • Published
  • By Cadet 1st Class Alicia Alexander

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- I once thought the Air Force Academy would only be a part of my daydreams. I came here from a civilian college in Belleville, Illinois where I felt right at home working with kids from the most dangerous city in the U.S. I thought the Academy could not accommodate the weight of my culture and experiences. In some ways, it can't – but it tries.

During the first days of basic training, we were instructed to get our money from our rooms to buy personal items from the cadet store, but I ignored that order because I didn't have any money. I came to the Academy with “zero dollars” in the bank and with thousands of dollars in student loans to pay. At first, my basic training cadre seemed angry and assumed I couldn’t follow directions, but they slowly began to understand that some people come from nothing.

As far as minority students go, I was lucky; my cadre believed in me and looked after me. But, along with that sentiment, I shouldn’t have to be lucky to receive the same respect automatically given to the majority of my classmates.

I kept my head down during my first year. I joined a sport, did my work, and built relationships with my professors because that’s the way I knew how to get through school. The only person I spoke with was the only other Black woman in my squadron. She helped me learn the ways of the military as a minority female. Rule 1? The white majority does not control you, so don't let them. Rule 2? Their discomfort with your culture and way of life has nothing to do with military standards so understand the difference between the two.

I took these rules to heart and slowly integrated myself into squadron leadership. I made Ace’s List, a dean’s award for academic excellence, after my first semester; I was included in the Scholar’s Program after my second semester; I was recognized as Cadet Group 3’s Top Four Degree; became Wing Open Boxing Champion in the 125-pound weight class; and was recognized as an NCBA All-American Boxer — third in the nation — in 2018.

Despite these accomplishments, I still doubted. I questioned my abilities and myself. I wanted to try becoming a doctor but would need a 3.5 GPA to be considered for the Air Force’s medical programs. I focused on my studies and gave this goal my every effort.

After my sophomore year, I remained in the top 1% of my graduating class and selected to complete my Operations Air Force assignment at Yokota Air Force Base, Japan. Also, the Scholar’s Department would fund a research opportunity if I could build and organize it so, with considerable help from political science department associate professor John Riley and English department professor Andrea Van Nort, I spent two weeks in Kabale, Africa studying community health. I was 21-years-old and made the trip alone.

My junior year centered on the Medical College Admission Test. I needed that year to study because I didn’t do well on standardized tests, my reading and comprehension was weak at best. The test took seven hours and contained 280 questions testing my scientific knowledge and reasoning skills. I had no idea how intricate that test would be and started behind the mark. I wasn’t like my counterparts who had doctor-parents or money to throw at prep courses so I took out a loan for a prep course and relied on my Academy mentors. I didn’t get my desired score on the test, and did not have the time to retake it but, in the end, I was the only Black woman at the Academy to receive a Health Profession Advisory Committee scholarship. I got my chance.

I applied to medical school and, after the first semester of my senior year, received the most interview invites of all medical school applicants, to include Harvard University. My score might not have been the best, but the schools appreciated my story. They appreciated where I came from and knew I could relate to a class of people they may never fully understand.

This year, I’m in the top 3% of my graduating class and will become one of the relatively few Black women to grace the Long Blue Line. However, all I could think about are all the minorities who were not as lucky as me: those Black or minority women who did not believe in themselves and did not pursue the grades, the scholarships, or graduate degree, so I’ve founded a mentorship program through the Way of Life Committee to ensure minority cadets receive the right counsel. I’ve created a Graduate Project Initiative to help minority cadets understand the path to pursue whatever post-graduate opportunity they dreamed of.

I remember the kid who showed up at the Academy but with 3-year-old running shoes and empty pockets, waiting for a chance. I thank all who believed in me and helped me on my way.