Reflections on My Time at AFIT
By MSgt Ronald Mitchell
MSgt Mitchell earned a master’s degree in materials science from AFIT in 2017. He is currently working as a Project Engineer at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH.
It would be a profound understatement to say that my time at AFIT was an incredible experience. When I was first accepted and arrived my first day I found myself surrounded by more CGOs than I had ever seen in my life. These young men and women, most of whom were fresh out of their undergrad, were hungry and very competitive. I was a bit taken back at their resolve to succeed and receive their A's in all their classes. I felt a bit like an outsider, at first, with what I perceived as a desire to not have me there with them. Turns out, many of them had little to no interaction with an NCO before and they were just as nervous as I was. Almost immediately, I began to see they wanted me to succeed and many offered their time and knowledge to help tutor me in areas I was lacking. After all, I had been out of school for years. Some of the material that I needed as a foundation I had literally not seen in over 20 years.
My first term was incredibly difficult. I had chosen an elective for my program that I remembered I had enjoyed in my youth, a thermodynamics class. It seems that time does decay ones memory, as it was the most difficult class of my entire academic career. I remember the feeling of utter defeat and the smell of perspiration and crushed souls every time I left an exam in that class. I just knew that the Dean of my college was going to show me the door. Amazingly enough, I passed that course...I don't know if the professor felt pity on me or if he saw something in me that I didn't see myself yet. One thing that life has taught me was that when you are knocked down, you have two choices: 1) Give up and know that you did your best…or 2) Stand right back up and hit back 10 times harder than you were hit. I opted for number 2). Every term I completed, my GPA increased even as the courses became more difficult. I can't remember a consistent period of time that I received a peaceful 8 hours of sleep my entire time in the program. I had notebooks and textbooks lying all around the house and my poor family had to endure my late nights, angry key pounding on the keyboard, and not so sunny disposition. Luckily, my wife had already completed her master’s program and she was an awesome supporter and my "rock", she kept me afloat on my roughest days.
I met some very wonderful prior enlisted Captains and Majors that took me under their wings. One Captain was in the same program that I was in and he helped me to steer clear of potential pitfalls and gave me incredible advice. That aside, my advisor was AWESOME!! She would not sugar coat anything. If I felt down or beaten to a pulp, she would first prop me up and so caringly remind me, "if it was easy, everyone would do it". Just a brilliant professor and by far a superior professional in her field of study, she seemed to have an infinite supply of time if I needed help. If you needed help, she was there!
I found the academic portion quite rewarding. There was a time, around semester 3, that I began having memory recall from my undergrad classes, which was quite amazing. I began seeing the problems in my head and knew what the course of action was to solve them. The course progression and material flowed extremely well and built upon itself. As I finished my course work, research began. I began experimentation and documentation of my results. This was an environment that I had thrived in most of my career, "here's a problem, go solve it sergeant". All of the hard work in my classes paid off as I began writing my thesis. Again, the coursework was well thought out and lent itself to the train of thought required to write my thesis. My advisor, gave me clear and concise expectations as well as definite timelines. Day or night, she was available for any assistance I needed with my apparatus or procedures. This was the easiest part of my time at AFIT. It seemed to go by so fast.....too fast.
Almost immediately I began seeing the benefits of my advanced degree in the Air Force, in my career field, and with the enlisted members I was stationed with. I was placed in a position that seemed to be identical to my lab at AFIT. My leadership empowered me, my senior scientists supported me, and my peers welcomed me. Just last week, I was at a function for a retiring Colonel. A young Airman was just sitting by herself, saying nothing.....engaging no one. As I began to converse with her, she let slip her BS was in the same program as I had just finished with my MS. I began telling her of my degree program and opportunities. The next day, I received a well thought email thanking me so very much for talking to her. She had no idea such a program existed for Airmen and that she now had a professional degree plan to pursue as well as something to look forward to if/when she graduates. If for nothing else, I feel so proud that I was there to help this Airman who needed professional educational advice and a goal, or "light at the end of the tunnel". It was a humbling experience to be able to mentor her and to see her enthusiasm for an enlisted opportunity such as this.