By Jennifer Spradlin, U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs, U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
/ Published December 10, 2019
Admission to Air Force Academy is highly competitive and each year more qualified candidates apply than are spots available. Of those who are not accepted, candidates with the most potential are offered positions at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School -- including prior enlisted Airmen admitted through the Leaders Encouraging Airmen Development Program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton)
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Admission to Air Force Academy is highly competitive and each year more qualified candidates apply than are spots available. Of those who are not accepted, candidates with the most potential are offered positions at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School – including prior enlisted Airmen who are admitted through the Leaders Encouraging Airmen Development Program.
Each LEAD Airmen takes a different path to the Air Force Academy; however, all quickly find out the next ten months at the prep school will be unlike anything they have done in the Air Force thus far. Here are the stories of four LEAD Airmen.
Moore grew up in Portland, Oregon, in what she described as an unstable household. She enlisted in the Air Force in 2016 for the educational opportunities and the structure that had been missing in her life. Initially serving as a traffic management specialist, Moore soon became interested in aviation.
“There was an airfield where they did private pilot lessons pretty close to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, and I paid for an introduction flight, which was really just the basics of flight, but after we took off the instructor let me take the controls briefly, and everything went slow-motion,” she said. “I will never forget the way it felt.”
She decided the Air Force Academy would be a good option to pursue her flying dream. While deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in 2017, she spoke to as many pilots as possible and completed her first application to the Academy. It did not result in her admission, and after her deployment wrapped, she worked with a tutor for seven months. She took the ACT three times to improve her score and submitted a second application. In April, she was accepted.
“I have matured a lot since coming here and learned a lot about respect and leadership,” Moore said. “Time management has been a big skill for me to pick up – it wasn’t something that I really learned in high school, and to be here now, I sometimes feel like I’m doing the impossible.”
Moore said the prep school has helped her bridge her enlisted experience with the skills she will need at the Academy. At one point, her eyes watered as she described the progress she has made in her life.
“I am so grateful to the Air Force, and I see commissioning as a way to give back to other Airmen,” she said.
Dietz is from York, Pennsylvania, and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after high school. He said he enlisted in the Air Force to create a strong foundation for his future and served as a geospatial intelligence specialist at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, Hawaii. His supervisor was looking into commissioning options and told Dietz about the LEAD Program.
“I have one really big goal, which is to become an astronaut,” he said. “When I thought about how I could best position myself toward that goal, it seemed like the Air Force Academy was the best option.”
Dietz, like many other prior enlisted Airmen at the prep school, had not been in formal classes for several years. His biggest adjustment has been to the academic workload and developing good study habits to be successful at the Air Force Academy.
“I definitely needed the time here to adjust; I was expecting it to be hard, but it took some adjustment and definitely the commitment to work one-on-one with some of the instructors on some of the harder courses – like trigonometry,” he said.
Dietz said the LEAD program is not for everyone and all applicants should do their research. He said applicants need to be self-driven and committed to be successful at the prep school.
“This is probably going to be the most challenging five years of my life, and I accept that, and try to stay focused on that light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Serrano was attracted to the Air Force after growing up near the Jersey Shore. He wanted to travel and was given the opportunity right out of the gate. Serrano served as an F-16 Fighting Falcon jet mechanic at Aviano Air Base, Italy.
Serrano liked serving in the Air Force but wanted to work in a field related to his love of architecture.
“During my first deployment, I started to realize that I was getting older, and it had been a few years since I had been back to school, and the longer I waited the harder it would be,” he said. “I was also exposed to some really good leaders during that deployment, and it inspired me, to sort of think about commissioning and mimicking their leadership qualities to help other Airmen.”
Serrano said the first few months at the prep school saw him eating a bit of humble pie. Fresh off his deployment, he said he was overly confident in his skills as an Airman. He said he had to open himself up to learning new things not just from his enlisted peers but from the cadet candidates who were fresh out of high school.
“I still had a lot of room to grow, and what I like about being here is that it’s hard – but it’s still doable. If you put in the effort, you will not fail,” he said. “I have learned more here in a single day than I did in a month back at home.”
Serrano is focused on improving his STEM acumen at the prep school but would like to pursue civil engineering after graduating from the Academy.
Yan is a first generation American and the first in his family to serve. Unlike many of his cousins who went directly into college after high school, Yan knew he wasn’t ready for that. He learned about opportunity in the Air Force’s cyber program and enlisted.
After his initial assignment at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, he decided that there was room for him to learn more about computers and to be part of the cutting edge wave the Air Force was riding in computer sciences. He had a strong background in STEM, but he struggled to meet the Academy’s physical qualification.
“At first, I couldn’t do any pullups or run a mile in under 8 minutes, so I started going to the gym five days a week and committed to improve my physical fitness,” he said. “For those interested in [the Academy], I’d just say to keep pushing and don’t give up.”
His first application to the Academy was unsuccessful. He persevered and was admitted on his second attempt. Yan remains focused on his physical fitness at the prep school.
“The physical portion of service has always been my weakest area, but I think I use that to help other Airmen with similar struggles,” he said.
Yan said he hopes to be Chief of Staff of the Air Force one day, although his nearest goal is to graduate the Academy and become a cyber warfare officer.
Editor’s Note: The United States Air Force Academy and its Preparatory School offer magnificent opportunities for our sharpest enlisted personnel to obtain their college degree and enter the active duty commissioned ranks. Prior-enlisted cadets possess both military knowledge and proven reliability which make them the archetype cadet and commissioned officer to lead the best Air Force in the world.