CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M., --
I have to get into this school or else I won’t fly.
That was the ultimatum Fiona Akoth gave herself when she was in the 11th grade visiting the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado.
Akoth is from the city of Kisumu, Kenya. There she lived with her family and at the age of nine Akoth discovered her passion for airplanes while watching them land on the small airstrip near Lake Victoria.
“When I was young I always looked up at the sky,” she reminisced. “And whenever I would see airplanes, I fell in love with them.”
Despite having the desire to fly, the challenges to reach her desires presented themselves almost immediately. Akoth voiced this to her family, but with their financial situation it just did not seem to be realistic.
“My family knew that I wanted to, but they never really thought that it would be possible,” said Akoth. “Flying is really expensive and so they were just like, ‘Hey, I know you really want to do this, but maybe you should think about medical school or maybe you should think about becoming a lawyer because it is a little cheaper.”
At the age of 13 she joined her family who lived in Texas. There she voiced her dream to fly again and fortunately this time was met with support. However, a new challenge presented itself and she was going to have to figure it out on her own. In immigrant communities this is typical simply due to the lack of knowledge over the different resources and opportunities in a country foreign to them.
“You don't know what you don't know,” said Akoth, “Our parents, my mom she was just trying to do her best. Not only are you facing the normal struggles that people from here (America) face, but you're also facing the fact that you're in a completely different environment with people you don't know. You only know a certain amount of people and they only have access to a certain amount of information. You're just less exposed.”
Fortunately, in the 11th grade she had a Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps instructor that exposed her to the paths available to her.
“I was just lucky because my JROTC instructor was my foot into finding out more about the military in general,” said Akoth, “I didn’t know about the Air Force Academy, West Point or the Naval Academy until someone outside of our community was able to tell us, ‘Hey, this would be a great opportunity for her. She could go to one of the academies.’”
Fast forward to now, Capt. Fiona Akoth is a 310th Special Operations Squadron U-28 Draco pilot. A long way from the start but living the life she once only dreamed of. With multiple deployments to East Africa it has come full circle for her.
“It felt surreal,” said Akoth. “Because I was back in the country that I had grown up in trying to help and provide to my fellow countrymen. I felt like it was my calling like I was put on this journey so that I could be able to do that. I was able to do something that I have been working for the last 15 years of my life. Finally, I was able to do it, not only to do it, but to be able to do it so close to home.”
Akoth is an example of overcoming adversity. For Akoth, the barriers came in various forms be it financial, familial and even herself at times. Her biggest take away and what she wants to share to other people like her is that it is easier said than done, but it can be done. Even if it’s only one step at a time.
Just make sure to always look up.