“Leaders don’t truly know they are leaders because they are always motivating others,” Capt. (Dr.) Erin Alyssa Stokes said.
Stokes spoke to Daleville High School JROTC students about “the importance of setting goals, the benefits of working hard to achieve those goals and the significance that leadership has on accomplishing those goals” during the 48th Annual Warhawk Battalion Military Ball on Saturday, Feb. 23.
Stokes was born in Chicago, living with her mother as the youngest of five children. She said her mother put her in AP classes and signed her up for several sports in high school, which she said was her mother’s way of “keeping her off the streets.”
“I was in advanced placement for math and English classes,” she said. “I just thought (my mom) hated me. Why would you put your kid in math and English AP classes when (she) was already playing soccer and basketball and volleyball?”
She said her mother continued to tell her to go after things that were important, specifically those that would help her get “out of the hood in Chicago.”
“Because of my mother’s economic status, it made me constantly dream about the things I wanted to accomplish,” she said. “I wanted to be all these great things, but that’s all they were to me at the time because I didn’t think I could be anything. They were all just dreams.”
She said her mother eventually enrolled her in Chicago Military Academy-Bronzeville, where she also took part in the school’s JROTC program.
“After these AP classes and extracurricular activities, my AP teacher… thought it was a good idea to tell my mom, ‘Hey. You need to make sure she’s doing more than just sports and academics,’” she said, stating she then joined the JROTC drill team and color guard. “All of these things, I just had no social life. Again, my mom was trying to make sure I was off the streets.”
She said she soon began to have fun taking part in the different programs, sports and classes she was taking. She said these provided her with the opportunity to travel and meet other students.
“I thought, ‘My mom didn’t ruin my social life,’” she said. “She built my social skills. It took me a while to understand.
“She allowed me to see things that were outside of my own comfort zone,” she said. “At that point, I told myself I’m going to be the best at whatever she puts me in.”
She said she started to set important goals in high school, including getting a scholarship to college. That scholarship came in the form of her experience as JROTC cadet battalion commander, a role she never thought she was good enough to fill.
“At our school, the cadet battalion commanders were normally selected by the JROTC commandant or the first sergeant, if you will, and I didn’t think I had a chance at all of getting that position,” she said. “I believed there were cadets who were more outstanding, who outshined me. I didn’t think I was good enough for that position.”
She had a 4.45 out of 4.5 GPA, was a captain of the soccer and academic decathlon teams, co-captain of the volleyball team and held several leadership roles in JROTC.
“No matter how good I looked on paper, I didn’t think I was good enough for that position,” she said. “I didn’t think I could lead 456 cadets. I was the class clown; I didn’t think that was possible.”
She said she knew the battalion commander role could offer her a chance for a scholarship, but she never put her name in the choices, motivating others to do it.
“I was afraid of asking for the opportunity,” she said. “I was afraid of the rejection. I was afraid of failure. I was afraid of disappointment.”
When the day came to announce the new battalion commander at the end of her junior year, she was surprised to have been given the position.
“We had an out-of-the-blue mass formation on the last week of school my junior year,” she said.
The next thing she knew, she heard her name being called, immediately thinking she was in trouble with her instructors. As soon as she stood in front of her senior Army instructor, she was given the rank of the battalion commander.
“(My instructor) said, ‘The principal, myself, the commandant and your peers have chosen you for this BC position,” she said. “I didn’t think I was mature enough for this position; they thought otherwise.”
Because of her role as BC, she was able to attend college on a scholarship. She also joined the Army in 2008.
“Because of those goals I set for myself, because of my work ethic, because of my follow through, because of my leadership skills I had and the peers I had to support me, I did receive that full-ride scholarship to college,” she said.
Since that day, Stokes has received her bachelor’s degree in criminology, criminal justice and English. She also has a master’s degree in law enforcement and justice administration, an MBA with a specialization in human resources management and a doctorate degree in business administration with a specialization in criminal justice.
“By 33, I mentored over 216 high school students,” she said. “I led one military company. I led one headquarters company. I was a program manager for the National Guard Bureau and a liaison for the Pentagon for the National Guard Bureau.”
She is now a captain in the Army, promotable to major next year, and currently serves as an air medical evacuation officer.
She is also the first black female aviator in the Indiana National Guard.
“If I listened to those naysayers, I wouldn’t understand the importance of setting goals, the importance of working hard to achieve those goals and the significance that leadership played (in) achieving those goals,” she said. “As a leader, disappointment is going to come. You’re going to fail. Your time is so limited here, so don’t waste it wishing, hoping, doubting or questioning your abilities. The worst thing that can happen is you fail, but as a leader, you get back up, you evaluate where you messed up, you adjust your strategy and you keep pushing. It’s the hard days… that will determine who you are.”