By Kerensa Crum, CCDC Aviation & Missile Center Public AffairsJuly 25, 2019
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. (July 25, 2019) -- It's no secret that Dr. Juanita M. Christensen, U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Command Aviation & Missile Center executive director, is a strong advocate for professional women and of the importance of mentorship.
Overcoming what some might describe as insurmountable odds, Christensen has climbed the rungs of the ladder of civilian leadership to become the first female director of CCDC AvMC.
Earlier this month, Christensen shared her journey with a group of girls enrolled in the AUM Charitable Foundation's Pathway 2 Success Program. AUM, named after and pronounced like the yoga mantra, is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to empower socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.
P2S aims to help female high school seniors, many of whom are minorities, gain experience and insight into their career path. Components of the program are job shadowing, enrichment classes, mentoring, and financial assistance.
"The mentors are investing in the future because you guys are the future," said Alka Bhargav, AUM's founder and executive director, addressing the girls in the room. Borrowing a Melinda Gates quote she read in O Magazine, Bhargav said, "'It's about believing that every person has a light inside them. If we can turn those lights on -- on behalf of women who don't have as much as we do, on behalf of minorities in our own country -- and stand up for what is right, we will break through. We'll all shine.'"
The AUM director introduced Christensen as someone with a bright light and as a trailblazer who has broken through the glass ceiling and is paving the way for women who will come behind her.
"I am so passionate about mentoring, I actually did my doctoral dissertation on mentorship and I mentor a lot," Christensen said. "I am very, very happy to see the numbers that are here."
The East St. Louis, Illinois, native and seventh of eight children was raised across the river from St. Louis, Missouri, an area with high crime and unemployment rates and large gang presence.
"What do you think people thought of me with where I was coming from?" she said. "(They said) 'You're not going to succeed; you're not going to be anything; you're not going to be anybody.' I could have bought into that."
Instead, a driven Christensen defied the odds. Neither of her parents graduated high school. "My mother told me, 'Do not let your environment define who you are'."
"I went to the University of Illinois, a predominantly white college (with) about 900,000 students -- huge school," she said, then laughed as she said the girls had probably never heard of it since "we only know Alabama and Auburn here."
She spoke of professors she would go to for help after class. Rather than help, Christensen said they would ask why she was even in their class.
More than three decades and three degrees - a bachelor's, master's, and doctorate - later, the young lady whose community had already written her off as a failure serves in the highest ranks of government civilian service.
As the head of the organization touted as the Army's focal point for providing research, development, and engineering technology and services for aviation and missile platforms across the life cycle, Christensen leads approximately 11,000 government and contract employees in five locations -- over 1.9 million square feet -- across the United States.
When she understood being named the director was even a possibility, Christensen said she thought, "There is no way in the world they're going to put this black girl right here in charge of all this."
"And they did but it was by the grace of God," she declared. "Please understand (that) this is not to boast in any way because I am only where I am through the grace of God; it is just that simple."
Though Christensen gives God's grace and favor top billing, she told the girls that she had also done the hard work and due diligence to be prepared for such a huge undertaking. She went over factors she said are integral to achieve success: doing your due diligence, having self-confidence, knowing your potential, taking risks, speaking up for yourself, demanding respect from others, being respectful of others, driving others' perception of you, engaging with mentors, and giving back.
Christensen told the girls about a woman she once met who was the previous premier of Bermuda. "She said something to me that I use now all the time: 'Lift as you climb'."
"So, ladies, when you're a freshman, you're going to need somebody to help lift you, but once you become the sophomore, and the junior, and the senior -- reach back. Help those behind you," she said, adding that they should aspire to be the mentors they all have now through P2S.
The CCDC Aviation & Missile Center, formerly known as the Aviation & Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), is part of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, which conducts responsive research, development and life cycle engineering to deliver the aviation and missile capabilities the Army depends on to ensure victory on the battlefield today and tomorrow. Through collaboration across the command's core technical competencies, CCDC leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more lethal to win our Nation's wars and come home safely. CCDC is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command.