On Being One’s Own Hero: General Powell on STEM Education, Careers in the Military, and America’s Future

Colin Powell rose from humble roots to become a retired four-star general, statesman, and diplomat. He is perhaps best known for serving as the 65th United States Secretary of Service under President George W. Bush, as the first African American to hold that position. Powell also served as National Security Advisor, Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command, and as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War.

Whether or not you agree with General Powell’s military philosophy, it’s hard to argue against his character. Born in Harlem and raised in the South Bronx, the son of poor Jamaican immigrants and the product of the NYC public schooling system, Powell is the sort of hardscrabble American that embodies what is possible through much work, determination, and dedication.

Both during his years in service and as a civilian, Powell has been outspoken about the importance of a good education system to our society. The Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York (CCNY) was born out of CCNY’s Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service, founded by Powell in 1997. The School is based around the social sciences, comprising five departments: Anthropology, Economics, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology, with interdisciplinary programs ranging from Pre-Law to Latino Studies.
Powell also founded America’s Promise Alliance in 1997. The foundation works with corporations, non-profits, faith-based organizations, educational institutions, and government agencies to achieve its goal of helping young people from all socio-economic backgrounds. The five “promises” of the foundation are: 1) Ongoing relationships with caring adults — parents, mentors, tutors, neighbors, youth volunteers or coaches; 2) Safe places with structured activities during non-school hours; 3) Healthy start and future (this includes access to healthcare and good nutrition); 4) Marketable skills through effective education (this is about technically preparing young people to have the skill-sets required by 21st century jobs); and 5) Opportunities to give back through community service.

The Harlem Times Founder Paul Jackson recently interviewed General Powell to discuss the importance of STEM education for America’s future, career opportunities in the military, and the necessity of being one’s own hero.

HT:

Who or what has been the biggest inspiration in your life?

Powell:

“The question I get asked all the time, and it’s unfair to signal out any one person or one inspiration. We’re the product of everything that comes into our life, good and bad. I would have to say it was the inspiration and support I got from my family, principally my mother and father but also my extended family. You know, immigrant family; came from Jamaica, settled in Harlem. I was born in Harlem, raised in the South Bronx. And the only reason I made it and got through school was because of the expectations that my family had for me, that I would get the education that they didn’t have, and that I would respect the family and make the family proud of me no matter what I ended up doing. My sister became a teacher. I became a soldier. They were proud of us both. And they were also proud of the extended family, all of the cousins in the extended family…I’ve written about this. The gift of a good start is the gift of a good family, that get’s you started and then a good education. In my case it was the New York City public school system, kindergarten through college.”

HT:

You chose the military as a career. What motivated you to pursue this path?

Powell:

“It’s almost as if the military chose me. When I entered City College of New York, just short of my 17th birthday, not sure of what I wanted to do, I knew I had no choice but to go to college because my parents expected it.  I started out in engineering, that didn’t really appeal to me. It didn’t go well. And then the second semester at City College I saw these cadets marching around in uniforms and that was impressive. So I learned more about ROTC and decided to join ROTC to see where that would take me. At the same time I was studying to get a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Geology. But I fell in love with the structure of military; I fell in love with the guys who were part of that structure. They were all like me, poor kids, mostly immigrant kids from inner city sections of New York…so I found in ROTC a new family, kind of like the family I had in my upbringing, but now I was alone in college and here was a new family.

“I went into the Army not knowing what the future would hold and with the Army promising me nothing except an opportunity if I worked hard enough and I had potential. It was just a few years after the last unit was desegregated in the Army. So I was really in that first generation of black officers who were not facing any segregation in the armed forces. And at that time the armed forces in the United States were perhaps the most progressive social institution in the country.

“And so that’s what I did, and of course I went south. Coming from New York with a very diverse background and a good education I was troubled by what I saw in the south. The bases were integrated but the towns off the base were not integrated, they were still segregated. And it was another six years before that went way. So I had exposure to segregation and what it was like in those days, but what the Army kept telling me was ‘Yep, that will change too. But right now you just to do the best you can and you compete with the young officers who are from West Point, Princeton, Harvard, Yale.’ And that’s what I did. I did my very best and I was able to say that all of those guys from those other schools became colleagues and buddies of mine over the next 35 years.”

HT:

So what do you think are some of the most promising careers in the military?

Powell:

“Well there are hundreds of careers in the military, and not just the Army but the Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps. Some are combat arms, which is what I was (you’re the ones who will take the fight to the enemy, either as an infantry officer, armor officer, fighter pilot, or in a submarine or something like that). And then there are more much more sophisticated, technically demanding jobs in the Army — repairing radar, working on navigation systems…there are some in between, like being a mechanic or being a software designer or engineer. Everything you can think of in civilian life you can find in the Army.

“Increasingly though, compared to when I first when into the Army 56 years ago, it’s much more technologically advanced. And so increasingly, we need youngsters coming in who first and foremost have graduated from high school. That’s our first prefix for two reasons. One; they finished high school. Therefore, they are more trainable than someone who hasn’t. Two; they stuck with it. They didn’t quit, they stayed with it and got their high school education and now they’re in the military and we can train them.

“More of them that come in with some sort of STEM background, that they didn’t shy away from science, technology, engineering, and math — the better we like them. Because that’s the kind of skill-set we require for a modern armed force. I think it’s still a great career for young people. I think serving your country is something noble to do and I’m proud to have that opportunity in many ways, both in the Army and in civilian diplomatic life. So any youngster who’s inclined in that direction, I hope they would pursue it.  Take a visit to a recruiting sergeant, any one of the services, and see what might be available to them.

“Here’s a statistic that you need to be aware of. Of the youngsters between the ages of say 17 and 25, only about 25% of them can actually get in the military, can actually pass our basic vocational aptitude test, who don’t have criminal records that would disqualify them, are in good physical condition, and don’t have serious health problems that would not be wise to bring into the military. So we’ve got a lot of work to do with our education system to make these kids smart enough to pass our basic test and that we get them away from drugs and other criminal activity. Fortunately we have been able to do that. 25% of that cohort is enough to fill the Army, but I still wish there were a lot more youngsters who were qualified to get in.”

HT:

So you’re saying don’t shy away from STEM courses in high school?

Powell:

“Don’t shy away from them. Because if all you do is sort of take your time getting through high school and you don’t seek out the difficult courses, or when you get those difficult courses your don’t learn from them, you’re going to be at a disadvantage, no matter if you go into the military or anywhere else these days. Increasingly our society is going upscale, with respect to the training and education needed. Our factories are relying more and more on computers and robots, and less on just raw manpower. And so the jobs really will go to those folks who are determined to get ahead, who have worked hard, who have studied, and who have a background in technical skills. It doesn’t mean you have to go to college; you just may want to go into a trade or into a blue-collar job. But even there, you need a level of skill now that was a lot higher than it was when I was coming along.”

HT:

So is there is a base? Do high school students need to take AP (Advanced Placement) classes?

Powell:

“Anybody who has the opportunity to take an advanced placement class should take it. It’s a lot more demanding, but we’ve got to teach our youngsters throughout America that we desperately need you to get all the education you can in high school, in order to prepare you so that you’ll be successful in college, and to make you employable when you come out the other end. As I was raised my family kept saying, ‘You know you’re not going to college just so you can enjoy yourself, or so that you can self-actualize, you’re going to college for one purpose — and that’s to get out and get a job (and get out of the house). So that’s the upbringing I had in New York City.”

HT:

I’ve heard engineers say that a lot of kids are dissuaded from the field because they thought they had to be geniuses, when really you just need to stick to it. What are your thoughts on this?

Powell:

“Well you just have to willing to open your eyes and study like you’ve never studied before. They are not simple courses. I was not a great student. I had straight As in ROTC, but otherwise I was a little over 2.0. But I rose to the top of two professions, a military profession and a diplomatic profession, because I worked like a dog and the Army insists that you do the very best at everything you are given to do; whether you like it or not you have to do your very best. That’s something we need to instill in our children.

“It’s especially the case with our African American youngsters, mostly the boys. The young women in the African American community, they get through high school at a higher rate. I was on the board of Howard University for many years. It used to disturb me that for every freshman class during my time on the board 15 years ago roughly 67 – 70% were women and only 30% were boys. And the women graduated at a higher rate. If you follow that string out you can see the kind of sociological, the kind of demographic problems this gives when we get these highly educated women, who will do well in the work place, trying to form a family with men who have not achieved that level. We really need to think through the consequences of our young boys not doing as well.

“That’s what I anticipate in the President’s program called ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’ which we launched earlier this year, and a lot of other similar programs. Because we’ve got to get these boys to stay in school, mind their manners, behave, and get an education. Unless they just want to have a low-level, low-wage job, then they’ll never get much better in terms of improving their situation in life.”

HT:

What is your message to these boys?

Powell:

“What I say to them is ‘Look, you’ve got the same brain, the same body as anyone else. And the fact that you were born poor or that you are in a not-great neighborhood is a disadvantage, but disadvantages are to be dealt with and worked over. So you may have to work harder, you may have to study harder — go ahead and do it. Don’t waste your time with drugs. Don’t waste your time thinking it’s cool not to study (because you look white or something, some nonsense like that). At the end of the day you have to stay on the right path, and not get in trouble with the law and get your education.’ And the thing I like to leave them with is that ‘We have expectations for you. We need you; your country needs you. Above all, be your own role model.  Stop looking at a general or Lebron James or somebody else.  Set your own standards, be your own standards, stop fooling around and stick with it; you’ll be somebody in life.’ And the good news is that so many young people do that.

I meet on a regular basis with different groups of young African American boys and men in school or who have graduated from school, and they are great — they can compete with anybody. But we need more of them. Just because you started out with a disadvantage in life, doesn’t mean that defines your life. And it doesn’t count where you start in life; it’s what you do in life that will determine where you end up in life. That’s what I tell them.”

HT:

You started America’s Promise. Does this fit in with that?

Powell:

“Yes, exactly. America’s Promise was created in 1997; I was the founder. I did it at the request of President Clinton, and then the other living presidents. It’s still going on now. President Obama signed our charter a month ago. So every president since 1997 has signed the charter. It essentially says, ‘We know what it takes to keep children in play.’ One, they need responsible, caring adults in their life. Two, they need safe places in which to learn and grow. More Boys and Girls Clubs, more YMCAs, more places where kids can be protected, more after school programs. Three, they need a healthy start in life. That’s why I’m all for universal healthcare. It’s a shame that we have so many Americans who are not covered, and that has to be a national priority. Fourth, these youngsters need a marketable skill…a skill that gets you a job is marketable. And that means you have to study and get an education that’s relevant to the job market, not just get an education for the fun of it, but it’s got to be relevant to the needs of the society and the economy. And then the fifth part of America’s Promise…the fifth promise is we promise to give every young person an opportunity to serve. In high school and college I think it’s important for young people to get involved in service to the community. Cleaning up some place or mentoring younger kids, or helping with older people who might have needs; doing something where you’re giving back to the society. It puts in your heart and soul the virtue of giving to others, and not just thinking it’s all about you.”

HT:

With young people pursuing STEM education, careers in the military, and organizations such as America’s Promise, where do you see this generation 20 years from now?

Powell:

“I see them in a country that is rapidly changing with respect to its demographics, a country where by the year 2043 the minorities of America will be the majority of Americans. I think it will be a country that is less divided with respect to racial issues than it perhaps is now (because young people have not yet been taught to hate for the most part). I feel they will be entering a country where…we will need them to be educated more than ever before. And that education includes a liberal arts education, a medical education, but above all STEM education because that’s where all the jobs are going to be.”

Perhaps one of the most powerful messages young people can get from General Powell is this — you can’t wait for the world to change itself; if you want change, you’ve got to do something about it today. Put the work in, stay focused and dedicated, and the future is yours.

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