By Kaley Turfitt
Last year marked my 10 years of civilian service to the U.S. Navy. I never was interested in the military and never imagined this as my career, so I often ask myself how I ended up here.
After all, I grew up on the muddy shoreline of a Mississippi bayou in a small town without a single stoplight. I was one of six children with parents who always ensured we were clothed and fed — mostly with leftovers and hand-me-downs. My childhood was filled with rock skipping, handmade pole fishing, horsefly slapping, moped riding and bottle rocket shooting — not to mention pulling in the trawl line on the Sassy Lady and learning to ski on the Pearl and how to drive a stick in Logtown.
I spent my elementary years with the same 15 classmates, our teachers trying earnestly to make us see past the hour of dodgeball with Coach Summers and the scrumptious rolls from Ms. Sylvia that we looked forward to every day. Their efforts were not lost upon me. I know my “times tables,” the difference between a proper noun and a pronoun and the basics of photosynthesis.
But what I remember most about those school days were the lessons about Christopher Columbus, the building of the Panama Canal, the sinking of the Titanic and the adventures of Lewis and Clark. I daydreamed about all the different places in the world, but it seemed so out of reach for a gangly girl with no means of experiencing these places except in my imagination. So at a young age, I made plans for my own adventure far away from Mississippi.
I knew education was the ultimate key to unlocking the doors of the world. I chose to go as far as I could without having to pay out-of-state tuition and studied for two years at Mississippi State University. I studied hard — not one party did I attend — because I knew an education was my only way out. In February of my sophomore year, I was accepted to study at Brigham Young University of Hawaii — a dream come true! My adventure began the following August.
At the time, the school was declared the most culturally diverse in the world, and of all things, I majored in international cultural studies. I not only learned about other cultures, but I sat in class with natives of those countries. I had roommates from Taiwan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. We shared recipes and served up traditional dishes, squabbled about culturally acceptable house rules and laughed about differences in language. The whole experience opened my eyes and provided a peek of what lay beyond the Mississippi swamps.
As fate would have it, I returned home to marry a Mississippi boy. As we settled into our newlywed life, I began my master’s in public relations at The University of Southern Mississippi. I also began working as a student for naval oceanography at Stennis Space Center.
This is the part in the story where you think I’ll say everything in my life didn’t turn out as I planned — but I’m happy, and that’s okay. Au contraire.
In all my years of dreaming and wishing, I never saw the treasure chest of opportunities in my own backyard at Stennis. That little job turned into a blossoming career with the U.S. Navy and led me to unimaginable places. It’s taken me across oceans — to big cities, small islands and many places in between. I’ve walked in the palace of Monaco, seen the geysers and waterfalls of Iceland, tasted pizza in Naples, stood in awe of the Roman Colosseum and returned to my beloved island of Oahu three times. I’ve flown with the Hurricane Hunters, gotten lost in the Pentagon, shot guns with the Potawatomi Nation, watched the vice president take flight from the Naval Observatory and so much more.
Most importantly, it has fostered a greater understanding of myself and appreciation for those around me. It has provided opportunities to learn and to lead, to teach and be taught. Sometimes I look back on the last 10 years and can’t believe what I’ve experienced — opportunities beyond my wildest childhood dreams.
So my message to Mississippi’s youth is this: You don’t have to walk the same path I did, but you should always shoot for the stars. You may land among the swamps of Mississippi, but take it from me — that’s a great place to be.
Turfitt is a public affairs officer for Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command at Stennis Space Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.