MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Crowds of people forced their way through congested streets. As they hustled and bustled off to wherever they were heading, there was almost no sky overhead. The massive skyscrapers where people lived in small living quarters towered above. For one young girl, this is where she was born and raised; this is Chengdu, China.
At the mere age of 10, Sijia Chen’s life changed forever. She and her mother packed up and left the only place they’d ever known in hopes of a better life.
Moving to the States
In 2005, Chen and her mother stepped off a plane in Tampa, Florida, into a city that Chen says changed her forever, and began molding her into the person she is today.
“Coming to America, we moved into this nice quaint town with a lot more space compared to the crowded cities I knew so well in China,” said Chen. “We were able to move into a place of our own, unlike the apartment we had.”
However, the move was difficult for Chen.
“At first, the kids wouldn’t play with me, because I didn’t speak English,” she explained.
She says she was bullied because she was unable to communicate with students or teachers. Chen eventually taught herself English through watching television and sheer will, and over time, she picked up on the American culture.
“It was difficult to learn the English language,” said Chen. “The American sense of humor took time to understand as well.”
Although there were early challenges, she says the struggles made her more resilient.
“The children made me want to speak their language; it made me want to push myself to be like one of them,” explain Chen. “Looking back, I really appreciate that. Because of that experience, I am able to speak fluent English now.”
Finding her calling
She went on to excel in school, and was a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp Army cadet at East Bay High School in Gibsonton, Florida.
Feeling confident in her work, she applied to the Air Force Academy her senior year. But when she received the academy’s decision, she was shocked.
“When I got rejected I was upset and bitter,” said Chen. “At the time, I was arrogant and thought if they didn’t want me, they weren’t good enough for me. Reflecting back, I’m ashamed I ever said such a thing.”
Chen went on to travel to Africa for a period of time to teach African children to speak English before returning to attend a local university. There, her life once again took an unexpected turn.
“It was that experience in Africa where I really saw how the other half lived; the contrast between the rich and the poor,” explained Chen.
Chen saw the hardships that some people faced and it put her barriers into perspective. While there, she once again faced challenges because of how she looked and where she came from.
“When I was over in a remote area in Tanzania, the natives refused to speak to me, because; First, I don’t think they had ever seen someone of Asian descent before,” said Chen. “Secondly, because I was American and Americans weren’t very popular over there.”
Chen saw the country she loved misrepresented and thought if she joined the military, she could help change that perspective.
“The America I grew up in isn’t the America they knew,” explained Chen. “America has given me so many opportunities, made me exactly the person I am, and here I was ungrateful to the country that had given me everything. When I realized that, I knew I had to come back and join the military, because what better way to spread the message than to be in the fight.”
She returned in 2013 and applied to the academy again… and this time, she was accepted.
Life in the academy
It has been three years since she joined the Academy, and Chen will be going into her senior year this fall.
“It is an outstanding institution with amazing opportunities,” said Chen. “I’ve been given opportunities that I know I wouldn’t have had if I was at any other college.”
While many cadets take a part of their summer to vacation, Chen chose to take advantage of a learning opportunity and applied for an academy-specific internship at the Judge Advocate’s Office here.
“She has a positive attitude, and has been willing to help with anything she can,” said Staff Sgt. Monique Willis, a military justice paralegal assigned to the 6th Air Mobility Wing Legal office. “She brings in a fresh perspective and new set of eyes to our work processes.”
Her days have been filled with assisting the JAG office, from legal research to working on organizing evidence and analyzing charges.
She is now heading back to the Academy to continue toward her Bachelor’s degree, but she says she will take the lessons she has learned at MacDill with her.
“Having served at MacDill, I’ve been able to apply leadership lessons from school,” said Chen. “My time here has taught me that leadership is a continuous process, and every Airmen provides a key piece of knowledge to my future leadership, and I am ready to learn more.”
Beyond applying the lessons she learned at the Academy, she says she found excellent examples of leadership within the legal office of MacDill.
“The staff judge advocate and the rest of the legal team do an amazing job of fostering a climate of respect among everyone in the office, said Chen. “The combination of personable leadership and upmost competence of both the attorneys and paralegals truly makes the base legal office an extremely effective family that exemplifies Air Force values.
“I must say, I am so honored to have the opportunity to serve among such outstanding Airmen, and I cannot wait to join the greatest Air Force in the world.”