The Pathbreaker: A Conversation with Major General Marcia Anderson

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Audiences attending the Opportunity Nation Summit on the campus of Columbia University will hear from some of the leading experts in government, international affairs and the media. They will also get a testimony on public service by one of the Army’s pathbreaking leaders, Maj. Gen. Marcia Anderson.

Anderson, who completed ROTC at Creighton University, rose through the ranks in the Army Reserve while she earned a law degree from Rutgers University and practiced law in Wisconsin. She is the Clerk of the Court for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Madison, Wisc. and as a Brigadier General, she led the Army’s Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Last month Anderson was promoted, becoming the first African American female major general in the Army’s history.

TIME speaks with Maj. Gen. Anderson about her career and other matters:

Why did you join the military?

It was very serendipitous. I needed a science credit in college, and I wanted to take astronomy, but it met at night and I had a part time job. I saw a gentleman from the military science department and took a chance and asked if it counted as a science credit. He said yes it did. They had pictures of people jumping out of airplanes and rapelling and walking through the woods, and I thought, “I can probably do that.” So I signed up.

It was one of the best decisions I made in my life. I was a very shy person, and they compel you to come out of your shell. You get challenged pretty early on, even in ROTC, before you get your commission as an officer. You’re put in charge and people expect you to perform.

What drove you to stay in the Army beyond your initial commitment?

The people and the opportunities that the Army Reserve provides. You’d be surprised at the number of people who do one thing in their civilian life, but they want to do this other thing in the Army Reserve, and by and large they excel at it. I think that’s what makes us very special and valuable to the Army. I might be a Military Police officer in the Army Reserve, but my civilian job might be a city planner. Those individuals have gone to Iraq or Afghanistan and situations come up where they say, “I know something about that.” Next thing you know, they’re no longer a Military Police commander, they’re in charge of some construction project.

That’s the real value of having citizen soldiers–we don’t just have our specialty in the Army, we have our civilian careers that add value. When you look at the fact that less than 1 percent has served, I think that’s amazing that 1 percent is able to do so much.

Can you describe the moment when you pinned your first star and became a general officer and when you earned the second star and made history?

The first time my father was there and he and my husband helped promote me. I remember the look in my dad’s eyes as he did that. He served in the Korean War, and what he really wanted to do was be a bomber pilot in the Army Air Force. He didn’t have that opportunity, so he ended up driving trucks. So my promotion was a very special moment for him and I could see that.

A few days before I pinned the second star, they confirmed that I was the first African American female ever in the Army, not just the Army Reserve. It was very humbling, because it made me think about the responsibility that comes with that. I kicked open the door, and not only do I need to keep the door open as long as I can, I need to mentor people behind me to come through that door.

Diversity is not about numbers. It’s about getting people in the room who have different experiences and backgrounds and they can bring those to bear to solve problems. If you’re going to have the same type of people in the room all the time, you’re going to get the same type of approaches and solutions. That’s what we have as a country that’s really great–this kind of diversity we can bring to bear with the problems we’re trying to solve.

How do you see the state of the Army, and the Army Reserve specifically, after two long wars where soldiers have done multiple deployments?

The Army leadership recognized that and moved out very quickly on the comprehensive soldier fitness effort to create a resilient soldier and family. It doesn’t just include the soldier, there’s support for family members as well. This wasn’t how people were deployed during previous conflicts, but the leadership recognized it and put the resources to work to address the challenges we face. Overall, we’re a resilient people.

Also, as soldiers, we’re embracing the fact that we need help. If we need help, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it. That was a cultural thing we had to overcome, but I’ve seen people make great strides. If we continue to support the soldiers and families, we’ll come through this with flying colors.

We need to provide people with the opportunity to move in and out of active duty. There should be policies that allow that to happen that support the employer, support the soldier and support the family. We need an enterprise approach so all those pieces can work together. The skills that an employer wants, the military wants as well. The things you learn in your civilian job have applications on the military side and vice versa, and I think that just makes us stronger.

What’s the message you’ll be delivering at Opportunity Nation today?

It’s amazing that we have this bi-partisan effort to talk about ways to provide jobs and opportunities to allow people to achieve their goals. I’ll be talking about the fact that I started out as a young girl in a time when expectations for women in general were to maybe graduate from high school and have a family. I demonstrate that that didn’t have to be the end of the story because I was afforded an opportunity for a good education. We have to have an educated workforce in this country. We have to work to make sure that all of our kids have that opportunity. With all the talent we have, we need to apply that to solve the problems that face us.