WASHINGTON -- The officer who now oversees $12 billion of the Army's information-technology investments was once ironically told he was "non-college material."

"I had to grow up fast in my neighborhood, and there weren't a lot of people going off to college," said Lt. Gen. Bruce Crawford, the Army's chief information officer, G-6. "When my guidance counselor said that to me, I knew that there was no ill intent. I wasn't the best student in school…but I also was not the worst."

Crawford accepted his counselor's brutal -- yet honest -- assessment, he said.

Optimistic, Crawford said he felt his transition into the working class would be easy, as he had already been working at a young age to help support his family in Columbia, South Carolina.

"I'm the oldest of four siblings by seven years," he said. "My mom was an encouraging single parent. We didn't have much, but she worked very hard as a nurse's aide."

"We were raised by my grandparents. My grandfather couldn't read and write. He was a carpenter and always worked. I worshiped my grandparents and being the oldest grandchild, I was the apple of their eye," the general said with a smile.

One of his instructors, Dr. Clarence Hill, a Jackson State University alumni and Army veteran, felt compelled to help.

Hill listened intently to young Crawford's story, then offered to take him to visit South Carolina State University.

"This was a man with his own family and his own business as an architect," Crawford said of Hill. Yet he took the time to introduce another family's boy to a historically black college and university, where he was pursuing his doctorate degree and teaching in the school's engineering department.

After visiting SCSU, the conversations between Hill and Crawford continued. Crawford learned about financial aid and he was determined to pursue a degree in electrical engineering. Hill also introduced Crawford to the university's Reserve Officer Training Corps program -- the infamous "Bulldog Battalion."

To date, 22 graduates of the school have achieved the rank of general officer and admiral in the U.S. military, with 15 of those commissioned through the school's ROTC program.

"The proudest moment for [Hill] was when I got promoted to brigadier general," Crawford said, with a proud grin. "He was able to witness [the event.] With tears in his eyes, he just said, 'I knew you could do this … I knew that all we needed to do was give you a chance.'"

HBCU FESTIVAL

As the keynote speaker during this year's HBCU Festival in Washington, Crawford shared his personal story on Feb. 23 to a large group of high school students and their families.

The festival began 17 years ago in the basement of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, said Rev. Howard-John Wesley. During that time, a handful of HBCUs and students attended the event.

The initial meeting was a stark contrast to this year's festival at the Washington Convention Center. Over 16,000 students and 70 HBCUs registered for the event, Wesley added. Moreover, schools were onsite offering more than 3,000 acceptance letters and $5 million in scholarships and financial aid to qualified applicants.

"We are here today knowing that the world is going to be changed by the opportunity we expose you to in this place," Wesley said during the event's opening ceremony.

"America will be made great by the next generation of those who go across the campuses of HBCUs, complete their education, put a degree on the wall, and go on to change the world," Wesley added.

SEEING HIS FULL POTENTIAL

As the opening ceremony came to a close, Crawford was compelled to walk through the crowded halls of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and interact with the students and families attending the event.

"[Hill] had a dream for me that was at a higher standard than what I had for myself," Crawford said. "You want to look forward, but you also want to look back and make sure that you're pulling people along with you."

Crawford said he felt compelled to lead others down the HBCU path that helped him and to introduce students to a wide range of Army opportunities.

"The lesson learned, when you have young people who have some potential, you don't destroy their dreams at an early age. You encourage them, and you put them in an environment that will allow them to realize their full potential," he said.

Students with such diverse ideas will also make the Army stronger, Crawford said. As the force continues to evolve, the Army will rely on "innovative thinking" to meet the standards set in by the National Defense Strategy, he said.

"You get a lot of that when you bring in a series of diverse experiences," he said. "As we enter this era of great power competition … it's going to require people who are comfortable in ambiguous situations. It is going to require a diversity of thought. That pipeline to a diversity of thought … is diversity."