ARLINGTON, Va. – Leaders from throughout the National Guard joined other Service members in mentoring more than 400 high school and college students during the annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, Global Competitiveness Conference, held recently in Washington, D.C.
The event allowed students to gain insight from Guard leaders, many of whom have STEM backgrounds.
“STEM is important,” said Army Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, the Maryland National Guard’s assistant adjutant general for Army. “It involves almost everything that we do in life, whether it is work, home or play.”
For many mentors, it was an opportunity to pass on life lessons and encourage young minds.
“I shared with them my successes and failures, and passed on things that worked well for me and what might work well for them,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Shanna Woyak, the Air National Guard assistant to the chief of the Air Force Nurse Corps.
Woyak, who began her career as a registered nurse, said science and technology still play a big role for her.
“The more we know in science, the more we can help our patients get healthier,” she said.
While Guard leaders take part in STEM event, mentor high school, college students Woyak excelled in math and science in high school, she had no idea where those fields may take her.
“At the time [high school],” she recalled, “I didn’t understand what doors it would open up for me in the future. STEM put me in a lot of different directions.”
One of those directions, she said, included overseeing a hospital, a job that required understanding medical and technology fields.
STEM pathways often have other benefits aside from career options, said Army Maj. Gen Linda Singh, the Maryland National Guard’s adjutant general.
“Those types of skills teach you to become a better leader through decision-making,” she said. “[You] are the future leaders that we’re looking at who will be able to take over when we are gone,” she said.
The role of STEM, she added, continues to grow.
“The world of STEM is not going to go backwards,” said Singh. “It will continue to move forward.”
While some may find STEM fields academically intimidating, Birckhead encouraged the students to examine what they already use in their daily lives.
“If you say that you don’t have a STEM aptitude, I would say ‘no, it’s not true,’” she said. “I see you on your phone, which is a microcomputer.”
Woyak stressed to the students that regardless of what career they pursue, hardships will be a part of life, and a resilient attitude is a must.
“I told them: ‘You are going to get discouraged along the way, and you are going to hit roadblocks,’” she said, adding it’s important for students to seek out those who have positive attitudes and want them to succeed.
For others, the session allowed students to see those doing the mentoring were not too different from themselves, especially when they were starting out.
“Once they see that folks [who] look like them or come from the same circumstance as them, it’s a lot easier to relate,” said Army Brig. Gen. Deborah Howell, the Virgin Islands National Guard’s adjutant general.
For many mentors, it was the students who inspired them.
“The students were just exciting,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Sean T. Collins, the assistant for mobilization and reserve affairs with the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. “And to give up their time to sit around a bunch of old generals and admirals to hear what they have to say speaks volumes.”
“When I mentor, I get mentored right back,” said Woyak. “Every single time, I’m in awe of these young people. They teach me too.”
It also makes her a better leader, she said.
“It grounds senior leadership,” Woyak said of the mentoring sessions. “You could get caught in [your own] bubble, and you forget why you are there sometimes. [This] reminds us why we are here and reminds us why we wear the uniform.”