By: Fontaine Wilson
I remember my senior year of high school, I had just received my acceptance letter to my #1 college choice. I was beyond excited and couldn’t wait to tell my parents. Then my mother let me know we couldn’t afford it. I was crushed. I had worked so hard in school, always on the honor roll, AP classes, and one of the top students in my class, only to be told, we can’t afford it. However, I was determined to find a way on my own, so I joined the United States Navy.
I was proud to be accepted into the Navy’s nuclear program, known as the most demanding academic program in the U.S. military, as a Nuclear Machinist Mate (Nuke). However, immediately after setting foot off the bus at boot camp, I was caught off guard by a racist “joke.” We were all lined up after exiting the bus and they were calling roll. They rattled off our names and rate. Then, the RDC (Navy Bootcamp Instructor) called out my name and rate. “Nuke?!… (he turns to the other instructor)…you ever heard of Legally Blonde? How about Legally Black!!!”
If you haven’t seen the movie, Legally Blonde, it’s a story about a sorority girl who attempts to win back her ex-boyfriend by getting into Harvard law school. His joke seemed to be an attempt to say it was ironic that I was a nuke because of my looks, race, or both. As if he was surprised that I was smart enough to be accepted.
Maybe because I was literally only 15 minutes into boot camp and this was my first impression of the Navy, but at that moment, I was so hurt and wondered what I had gotten myself into. I thought I made a big mistake. After roll call, we were able to call our parents back home to let them know we arrived at boot camp safe and sound. I had to fight back tears, still stung by the insensitive joke, and try to sound happy to my parents so they wouldn’t worry. That feeling of being singled out, not belonging, or just being different kind of stayed with me. After the Navy, I studied Petroleum engineering at the University of Houston.
As an African American veteran, I rarely see anyone that looks like me. Being a nuclear machinist mate in the Navy and being a petroleum engineer major in college were very similar in that regard. I was always the only African American female in my classes or in my Navy division. It feels isolating at times, but what I have learned is to use it to my advantage.
There will be those who point you out and question if you should be there. However, use it as an opportunity to bring a different prospective to the group. I know that I have something to offer and that my unique prospective is valuable. I also know that my presence in the room will open the door for other minorities. My story is not unique. Many others have had to bear the unfair burden of being the representative for an entire group of people. But these stories should be heard.
Through Minority Veterans of America, we can have a bigger reach by sharing these stories. I want to motivate the next generation of minority veterans and inspire young minorities to take on challenging careers in order to increase diversity in the future. I also want to encourage those who have already served and let them know they weren’t alone. We share similar goals, dreams, insecurities, and setbacks. Together, we can create a more inclusive culture. Yes we are different, but we belong!
Fontaine Wilson is currently a Valve Technology Engineer at MRC Global. She served six years in the United States Navy onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and received her bachelor’s degree in Petroleum Engineering from the University of Houston.
Fontaine believes our military veterans are tomorrow’s most influential leaders. She has served these future innovators as cofounder of Student Veterans of America-UH chapter and as chapter president from 2015-2016. Under her leadership, the UH chapter became a finalist in the 2015 SVA Business Plan Competition and was recognized as the 2015 SVA Chapter of the Year.
Fontaine now serves as a member of the Board of Directors at Student Veterans of America. She currently resides in Houston, TX and can be contacted at www.linkedin.com/in/fontainew.