BELTON, Texas (March 28, 2017) -- Speaking to a group of nearly 30 ROTC cadets and students at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, March 28, the commander of the Fort Hood-based 504th Military Intelligence Brigade offered methods for overcoming adversity and bias during the university's 1st Annual Women's Leadership Symposium.

Col. Laura Knapp joined UMHB Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Dr. Christine Nix, as the featured guest speakers for the school's event, which was sponsored by the Army ROTC program. Each speaker achieved notable firsts in their careers, both of which -- the military and law enforcement - were traditionally male-dominated professions.

Professor Nix, who was the Texas Rangers' first black female officer, said the cadets should be true to themselves, not to lie and not to assign blame. She also served as a city police officer and trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety. Col. Knapp said the future military officers should respect and trust their Noncommissioned Officers, develop peer relationships and networks, and always treat people kindly and with dignity and respect.

For Col. Knapp, who became the 504th's first female commander in July 2016, her dream to become a brigade commander began as a battalion commander.

She said despite her success, she still has feelings of self-doubt in her goals and dreams, even up to the months of her own brigade Change of Command Ceremony. Selected for command just three months prior to "taking the brigade colors," she revealed the short preparation time initially drove her to feelings of worry and uneasiness.

"I got selected in April (2016), and I was happy when I made that list; I knew it was going to be the 504th, I was excited about that and I thought I had a year to really get it," Knapp said. "Then I found out I had about two months, and I really got scared and I started doubting myself and doubting if I was even ready."

Fortunately, she said that a former boss and two-star general officer, walked her through preparations for brigade command, and offered a lasting "pep talk" to get her through. At their last discussion he offered to be her mentor, she said.

"I had a mentor who was encouraging and supportive, and that mentorship relationship is a relationship that develops through personal interaction, a shared bond and shared goals," Col. Knapp said.

Dr. Nix, who retired as a major in the Army Reserves, serves as a mentor to the ROTC program's 15 females. She said her proudest military moments come from seeing, "young women sworn in as 2nd Lieutenants prior to graduation at UMHB."

Cadet First Sergeant, Christina Pierce, a senior in the UMHB Army ROTC program, served as the primary organizer of the Women's Leadership Symposium. She said her own mentors while an enlisted Soldier from 2011-2014, encouraged her to participate in the Army's Green-to-Gold program.

"I joined the Army in 2011 as a (Combat Medic). Through the support of my Chain of Command while I was in the (15th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division), I was able to apply for the Green to Gold Hip Pocket Scholarship and be selected in 2014," Pierce, a native of Union, Missouri, said.

Pierce serves as the cadet senior enlisted advisor to a company of 25 ROTC cadets. The idea to host the women's symposium came during a Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency experience in Guyana for her last summer. The CULP program is sponsored by U.S. Army Cadet Command, and is a three-week immersive experience for cadets to learn foreign cultures and languages. Pierce said three accompanying Army officers planned a women's mentorship meeting there, which set the foundation for Tuesday's UMHB event.

"I learned so much from (the three officers), and still continue to as we've stayed in touch since," Pierce said. "I wanted to share the opportunity for growth with my peers and the importance of seeking out mentors throughout our careers."

Capt. Clayton Terry, who serves as the Assistant Professor of Military Science at UMHB, said the event had mixed objectives -- to expose the female cadets to success stories of women in their careers, as well as developing male cadets' perspectives on leading female Soldiers in the Army.

"I want them to talk to women that have had great success, so they can see that it is possible and they can get keys to success from the women that have gone before them," Terry said. "I also want to expose our young men to the conversation of women in leadership, so they can use that perspective to positively impact the female soldiers they will lead."

Breaking the mold and seeing other Soldiers as brothers -- and sisters -- in arms, will only benefit the Army, Terry said.

"The Army is a people business and being able to expand the perspective of our people should enable them to see the Soldiers in their formations as fellow warriors no matter what they look like when they are out of uniform," Terry said.

During her remarks, Col. Knapp offered how women overcoming adversity benefited their organizations. Improving diversity throughout organizations greatly fostered a better workplace environment, she said.

"There's a lot of research in the field, and a lot of it's coming to the forefront in the corporate world about having diversity in leadership, diversity in management, and diversity in the board of directors. It presents higher rates of return, higher performance, and higher engagement in organizations through employee satisfaction to business productivity to business income," Knapp said.

Throughout her military career, the 504th commander endured an uphill climb in gaining acceptance from her male peers, she said. Especially in early areas like applying for admission to the United States Military Academy or career advancement. Most of her teachers said it was a terrible idea to apply to West Point, and that no women from her high school or county had ever gone to a military academy. However, her school's marching band director backed her intent.

"When I told him I wanted to apply for West Point, he was the only person in my life at that point who was encouraging. Everyone else was discouraging," she said.

In one example from 1997 as a company-grade officer, Knapp said a male brigade commander told her that no women would serve in a prestigious assignment within their division. While dispirited, she said the experience fostered a drive for success.

In another example, Col. Knapp relayed a recent day's events, when she witnessed the changing face of gender integration in the military. That morning, she saw a female lieutenant lead a platoon of MI Soldiers during a field exercise, which included arduous weather conditions and austere living conditions.

"She was out there in the rain, in the hail, with her troops making sure they went to the right spots, making sure they're okay," Knapp said. "They can still do their mission, and they knew their task and purpose."

She continued by saying, "The (Soldiers) said they had confidence in their training, they had confidence in each other, and they had confidence in their platoon leader."

During her concluding remarks, the commander said diversity builds organizations, the military and our country.

"I want to see more voices and more perspectives and more diversity, because that makes us stronger as an Army and makes us stronger as a nation," Col. Knapp said.