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Narrow your zone of ignorance

(Courtesy Photo)

(Courtesy Photo)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- As our esteemed Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh commented last week at his commander's call, we all have a story. As a proud Community College of the Air Force degree recipient, I'm respectfully taking this opportunity to share a little bit of my story with you.

It was February 1997, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Staff Sgt. Spencer Thomas was seated on a podium anxiously awaiting my name to be called so I could walk up on stage to receive my diploma for completing my CCAF degree in environmental medicine technology.

Strangely enough, what I remember most about that time was the days leading up to the graduation ceremony and sharing my joy with my best friend, Dan, who had completed his CCAF degree about a year prior.

I said to Dan, "Hey man, I got my CCAF degree."

To which he replied, "That's what a good Airman or non-commissioned officer is supposed to do. Come talk to me when you get a bachelor's degree!"

In today's culture, I suppose that was Dan's way of "keeping it real" with me. In spite of him being a killjoy, I took his words with a grain of salt and continued to feel proud of my accomplishment.

Now allow me to take you back 10 more years, to 1987, at the beginning of my junior year in high school. I really don't remember how this idea came about, but my high school guidance counselor encouraged me to apply for the Air Force Academy's class of 1992. My GPA was decent, SAT score so-so, and I was a pretty good athlete. But needless to say, I didn't get accepted and subsequently enlisted in our Air Force shortly after graduating from high school.

Airman Basic Thomas was a good little Airman... came to work on time, learned my job, knocked out my CDCs, respected my superiors and even lucked up and got a three on my very first enlisted performance record! Yes, a three. However, as good an Airman as I thought I was, I was indifferent towards the idea of off-duty education. As far as I was concerned, a high school diploma was all I needed.

Then along came a supervisor by the name of Theresa Siejack. She challenged me to get in school. She was downright relentless and the only way to get her off of my back was to enroll in a class. I eventually surrendered to her constant pressure.

After completing my first few college courses, higher learning became very appealing to me. It gave me a better sense of self; it was as if I had spent the first 20 years of my life being near-sighted, not knowing that I needed some form of corrective lenses. Then, without warning, this thing known as "formal education" equipped me with 20/20 vision or as characterized by noted author, Denis Kimbro, the world was opening up because I was actively narrowing my zone of ignorance.

Not to mention, it also gave me a nice bullet on my EPR.

The years rolled past. I continued to take classes, learning more and more about the world and people around me. Earning my CCAF degree was definitely a milestone, but the process of inching towards and ultimately conferring a bachelor's degree was quite a journey.

My family had grown, job responsibilities increased and low and behold, my buddy, Dan, calls me and says, "Hey man, I just got picked up for officer training school."

In all seriousness, his call fueled me to pick up the pace. My wife even upped the ante by exclaiming, "You're sharper than Dan. You need to get into OTS too!"

I put my nose to the grindstone finishing my bachelor's degree a year after Dan's phone call. And just like that three EPR, I lucked up got selected for OTS which was one of the most gratifying moments in my Air Force career-largely made possible by digging in and actively narrowing my zone of ignorance.

Fast forwarding to the fall of 2004, I'm a first lieutenant, fresh off of a deployment and working on a master's degree because I wanted to meet the eligibility requirements to teach ROTC.

Then, out of the clear blue sky, my good friend, Carla Sizer, calls me and says, "Hey Spence, do you have your master's degree?"

I say, "Funny you'd ask... I'm doing homework right now."

She replies, "You ever thought about teaching at the Air Force Academy?"

I say, "No, but it sounds like a pretty cool gig." Thanks to the support and assistance of a lot of good people, I was able to put a package together. The moon and the stars aligned themselves, and within a matter of a time I found myself teaching in an elite university in which, if you remember, I wasn't qualified to learn as a student.

And if this transcendent career moment wasn't enough to knock my socks off, in 2007 I was a recipient of the Air Force Academy's highest teaching award, the Outstanding Academy Educator.

Please believe me when I tell you that I am not trying to feather my own cap, but instead, drive home the point of how actively narrowing one's zone of ignorance truly opens up doors that are often too difficult to be seen with the naked eye.

I encourage each of you to continue narrowing your zone of ignorance. Formal education is an empowering force. It helps us to critically think and solve ill-defined problems, improves our technical expertise, enhances our intellectual and emotional capital, sharpens our ability to lead, follow, manage, supervise, and mentor. It transforms us from being a "leaner" to one who "lifts" and equips us with the tools to give others energy instead of sapping it away from them.

I once again congratulate and salute all of the graduates for making a commitment to significant self-improvement. It's been said that "education is the gateway to opportunity." Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you as living proof! And contrary to my buddy Dan's belief, your CCAF degree conferral is a big deal for both you and your family, as I believe this is a watershed event that will carry you to bigger and better things.


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