Winning Essay by Isaiah W. From Mississippi Attends Vanderbilt

I met one of my personal heroes, Colonel (Col) Charles McGee. Col McGee, a Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen (DOTA), is an unsung American hero who led and inspired as National President, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (TAI). TAI strives to inform the public of Tuskegee Airmen accomplishments while inspiring young people to explore aviation, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. This is where our paths crossed. In high school, I attended a Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. National Convention in St Louis, MO. During the convention ,I had lunch with Col McGee. It was an honor to sit at the table with an African-American hero who not only overcame obstacles to achieve his dream but was also an inspiration to my grandfather who, like Col McGee, overcame obstacles to achieve aviation dreams. That day was truly remarkable as I heard first-hand accounts of determination, perseverance, commitment, drive and vision of a man who had a remarkable impact on our history. Because of that experience, I continued to volunteer during two national conventions. Specifically, I provided administrative and labor support in executing the most impactful student award program TAI sponsored.

I was most in awe of how Col McGee completed the rigors of pilot training and then successfully utilized those skills in combat. During WWII, he engaged enemy aircraft over the enemy airfield and even shot down an aircraft while receiving ground fire. He is unique among all Air Force (AF) flyers because he flew combat missions across three major conflicts (WWII, Korea, and Vietnam) and leads all AF fighter pilots in total number of combat hours. He did this all while institutional racism limited his military career progression. Additionally, he was denied simple benefits like access to a haircut on a military base; yet, he persevered with dignity and integrity. After leaving the military with a wealth of aviation expertise, U.S. airlines repeatedly rejected his application to fly commercially. However, he did not let this stop him from striving for excellence and being a leader for others to emulate.

Inspirational guidance from and the life example of Col McGee truly impacted me. I attended an “inner city at risk” school where little was expected of African-American males. Col McGee told me to work to make educational excellence and leadership my hallmarks. So, I worked hard and earned over a 4.0 high school GPA, received recognition and awards for having the highest standardized test scores in my school, and became class valedictorian all while being a four-time MVP and captain of the swim team. I am majoring in computer science engineering because of my strong desire and interest in computer programming. Although it has proven to be tougher than I thought, the echoing words of Col McGee continue to motivate me, especially when reminded of obstacles he overcame. Likewise, I continue to reach back to my high school to encourage others to press forward to graduate from high school and continue their education by earning a STEM college degree.


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