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Dreams, diversity, and determination: an Airman’s story

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Katelynn Jackson
  • 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz.-- When Winnie Adipo was just a young girl growing up in Kenya, she dreamed of nothing more than becoming an officer in the military. 

Every year, Adipo’s father, an agriculture teacher at a local high school, had free tickets to see the annual fair in Mombasa, a coastal city in the eastern outskirts of Kenya.

With the myriad of vibrant colors, dizzying rides flying overhead and mouth-watering aromas in the air, any child would be dazzled by the showgrounds. However, Adipo looked forward to one attraction more than any adrenaline rush that rides or sugary sweets could offer. 

“After all the rollercoasters and food trucks closed for the night, the Kenyan military would arrive,” said Adipo, her warm brown eyes lighting up. “We would wait every single year until midnight for their performance.” 

As a child, Adipo was mesmerized by images of soldiers in crisp uniforms, marching with perfect synchronization to the booming music of the band; a preemptive instinct swelled inside her, drawn to the potent demonstration of strength and unity. 

“When I was older, I began to understand the impacts of military service,” said Adipo. “I saw that it was something bigger than myself and I knew I wanted to join.” 

Adipo would attempt to enlist several times into the Kenyan military, and each time she would be denied. 

“Unemployment was really high in Kenya,” Adipo said. “So of course many people would try to enlist, but the recruiters only let in people they knew or those who could pay to get in.” 

On her fourth and final attempt, having earned her bachelor’s degree, she spoke to a recruiter about becoming an officer.

“He told me, ‘Give me 200,000 shillings and I’ll fix you in,’” said Adipo, her brows furrowing. “I just didn’t have that sort of pocket money and just like that, my dream was gone.”

While her dream of joining the Kenyan military was at an end, Adipo would go on to enlist in the U.S. Air Force in 2016. 

Her journey from Kenya to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, is one of perseverance and determination. A success story that Adipo credits to a lifetime of experiences her diverse background awarded her. 

Adipo’s cultural humility began far before she ever stepped foot overseas. Kenya is made up of 44 tribes, all with different languages and cultural backgrounds. Her father was from a small coastal tribe called Mijikenda and her mother from a large central tribe called Kikuyu.

 Born in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, Adipo and her family moved to the city of Mombasa when she was very young. While the majority of Kenya is populated with Christians like her family, Mombasa is a Muslim community with a majority Arab population. 

Her family’s home in Mombasa had no water or electricity until she was 14. Consequently, she spent much of her childhood going to a well to fetch water, doing laundry by hand, playing with other kids in the sand, and exploring the nearby bushes in search of wild fruits.

While her older siblings all attended Christian high schools, Adipo’s high academic marks qualified her to go to a predominantly Muslim high school nearby.

“Almost everyone in that school was Muslim and Arabic, I was among very few Christian Africans there,” said Adipo. “I had to wear a hijab for the first time, learn Islamic culture and Arabic language.”

In addition to military aspirations, Adipo also felt a pull to nursing, having grown up watching her mother work as a nurse. As the second youngest in a middle-class family of five children, she couldn’t afford to pursue a nursing education on her own. 

Despite achieving excellent grades throughout her primary and secondary education, she didn’t qualify for the government scholarship for nursing school. After receiving scholarships for an alternative field of study, she went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology and communications from the University of Nairobi in 2012.

Her dreams began to be realized in 2015 when Adipo got an email, mistakenly delivered as spam, to her account saying she was selected for the Diversity Visa Program. The DVP is a U.S. State Department sponsored initiative which grants up to 50,000 immigrant visas annually to potential migrants from countries of low immigration rates to the United States.

“If you have never stepped out of your country of birth, I will tell you to go and experience how different the world is,” Adipo said. “It completely opens your mind.” 

She first arrived in Tacoma, Washington, in October of 2015. She would spend the first two months collecting all the necessary documents to begin employment. 

“The man driving me to the social security card offices asked me what I had been doing in Kenya and what I wanted to do,” said Adipo. “I told him when I was a little girl, my dream was to join the military” 

The man promptly encouraged her to look into enlisting in the U.S. military and gave her a U.S. Air Force recruiters number. Adipo described being surprised by the smoothness of the enlistment process as opposed to that of the one she encountered in Kenya. 

“It was so simple I couldn’t believe it,” said Adipo. “No one was trying to take my money!”

Adipo again inquired about joining as an officer. However, she needed to obtain a U.S. citizenship in order to commission into an officer position, which Adipo could only acquire through first enlisting. 

Having scored highly on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a multiple-choice test designed to predict occupational success in the military, she was qualified for any job of her choosing.  

The Air Force provided her the opportunity to finally train and work in the medical field, and Adipo enlisted as a health serviced management specialist.

From the beginning of her military service, Adipo set the standard amongst her fellow Airmen, starting at basic military training. 

“In Kenya we are used to a culture of discipline and respecting higher authority,” said Adipo with a shrug on her shoulders. “People coming and shouting at my face? That’s nothing to me. I was used to the hard life.”

Upon graduation from basic training and technical school, she quickly began to excel in the operational Air Force. In 2018 She earned below-the-zone, an early promotion consideration awarded to junior enlisted Airmen who demonstrate exceptional performance and operate a rank above their current class. Only 3 years later, now a staff sergeant, she was placed as the noncommissioned officer in charge of personnel administration with the 56th Medical Group at Luke AFB.

While already proving successful in her current career field, Adipo never lost sight of achieving her goal of becoming a nurse and commissioned officer. She began preparing her submission package for the Nursing Enlisted Commissioning Program in 2022. 

The highly selective program would allow her to earn a nursing degree cost-free at a public university while continuing to receive benefits and pay before attending Officer Training School. She would then return to active duty as a commissioned nursing officer in the U.S. Air Force. 

Adipo said that despite stereotypes or ignorance formed from lack of exposure to diverse cultures, her background and nationality was never something that held her back in or outside of her career.

“When you do face adversity or negativity, when people make assumptions about you, you can’t focus on that,” said Adipo, her voice clipped with quiet fervor. “You can let your work speak for itself and people will notice.”

Her work certainly was noticed and, in April of 2023, she was selected for the Nursling Enlisted Commissioning Program. Adipo is scheduled to begin class in August at Arizona State University. 

Her success can be attributed, Adipo says, to the lessons of patience, acceptance, and humility that she gained from her upbringing. 

“Diversity is really in here,” Adipo said, pressing a finger to her temple. “Just being of the same color, age or gender doesn’t mean you will have the same perspective of the people who share your appearance. We all think and contribute to the mission differently.”

The Air Force recognizes the essential value that diversity of background, experience, demographics, perspectives, thought and organization contribute to our ultimate success in an increasingly competitive and dynamic global environment.

Adipo supports this ideology, stating, “We all come from different walks of life here, and that’s what makes America great.” 

Airmen like Adipo not only exemplify the Air Force’s core value of excellence, but contribute to the diversity of perspective that is not only the force’s, but the nation’s, greatest leverage.