As a high school teacher, I am always glad when May rolls around because I know in a few weeks, I will be out of school for nine weeks. The seniors are either chomping at the bit to graduate or some are sad that their high school experience is almost over. They all must go out into the world and assume their rightful place in society.
Many students are overwhelmed by the cost of college. Should they go to school, assume debt and hope for a good-paying job in four years? All those dollars that repay student loans are after tax dollars, an expensive proposition. Will I graduate or just party and rack up debt? Will I get a job after graduation? Is it better to go to a community college, get a certificate and work in a plant? Should I go on a real adventure to Alaska or beyond or get a high-paying job and make myself a fortune?
Well, let me introduce you to a good friend of mine and share how she answered the questions I just outlined when she graduated from high school.
Vanessa Hicks was born in Victoria and grew up in a fatherless home without many luxuries. However, she had a very strong mother, Viola Hicks. Money was tight, so Vanessa sometimes helped her mother, who also taught her the importance of hard work by cleaning houses and offices in town to help make ends meet and drying cars for tips at Mockingbird Carwash.
Vanessa told me her mother, still a Victoria resident, was a strict disciplinarian. Her mother’s philosophy was to raise her children with a Bible in one hand and a switch in the other. Vanessa laughs about this now and says old-school parents understand what this means. She also said she appreciates her upbringing and attributes it and a belief in God to her success in life and as a soldier.
When I asked Vanessa about advice for young people, she told me about when she worked for Mr. Gatti’s Pizza. She said she worked there despite having done well in school and having graduated from Victoria High School. Vanessa was enrolled in Victoria College at the time but could only afford to take a few classes. This all seemed fine until some of her girlfriends she graduated with strolled into Mr. Gatti’s for pizza during their college spring break. These girls looked happy and were decked out in their college colors, which included T-shirts with the names of colleges like the University of Texas and Texas A&M. Vanessa said this was a wake-up call and that it meant her friends had moved on with their lives. She felt ashamed and frustrated because she could not afford to take more classes at VC or attend UT or A&M.
Vanessa later spoke with a friend of hers who joined the United States Marine Corps. Her friend explained that although military service was tough, there were incentives for people who could meet those demands and serve honorably – including money for college. So, Vanessa joined the Army, and the rest is history.
During her enlisted service, she and her sister were recruited by an Army captain who worked for Sam Houston State University to become Army officers. They accepted the challenge.
Despite the financial help she received from the Army college fund and the GI bill, Vanessa still had to work while in college. She told me she was a full-time student and an SHSU ROTC cadet and worked full-time as a correctional officer for the Texas Department of Corrections. While working there, she met fellow Correctional Officer Jason Callaway, her future husband, who not only worked for Corrections but was also a student at SHSU.
Vanessa’s great military career allowed her to serve in many different leadership roles, including company commander in Germany, a brigade intelligence officer and eventually in two separate combat tours in support of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Vanessa, who is now retired from the Army, said she is grateful to her nation and grateful that it honors those who serve. She said she believes Americans know that when they ask people to serve that it won’t be easy. She said in return for their sacrifice, she believes Americans are grateful, and they show it by supporting incentives like helping them to go to college.
I cannot help but wonder what would happen if Vanessa met with that same group of friends she saw that day in Mr. Gatti’s and compared notes on what they did with their lives. How would they stack up against Lt. Col. Vanessa Hicks Callaway? Knowing Vanessa, she would just smile and thank them for inspiring her to do more.