BOWIE, Md. -- The journey to the Officer Corps had a few bumps along the way for Jackie Berry.
He left his family in Charleston, South Carolina, to go up north to pursue a computer technology degree at Maryland's Bowie State University.
While his tuition was paid for by the Army through the school's ROTC program, Berry was homesick with nowhere to live.
"There were times when I was almost homeless," he said Thursday after a commissioning ceremony at the university.
A faculty member, he said, then reached out to him. She let him stay in her basement while he sorted things out and even got him a job on campus as a tutor. He would go on to meet his future wife in that job.
He also interned at national laboratories to refine his skills in the fields of STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math.
"Because of her, I'm here today to be a second lieutenant," he said of the faculty member who housed him.
Berry now eyes a bright future as a military intelligence officer. He hopes to turn any success he has in the Army to help his family.
"When you grow up, you [can't wait for] that day when you can start giving back to your family," he said. "I feel that this is the first step toward that."
Full of smiles at the ceremony, his mother, Felicite, proudly pinned her son's rank onto his shoulders.
"I'm so happy today," she said. "I'm so proud of my son. He's the only one in our family to graduate from college."
Across the stage inside the university's auditorium, Lt. Gen. Bruce Crawford watched on. As another product of a historically black college, the Army's chief information officer traveled to Bowie State to commission Berry and two other cadets.
"If it were not for people giving back and coming back to speak and share what they've learned … I definitely wouldn't be standing here today," Crawford said.
A 1986 ROTC graduate of South Carolina State, the general noted that historically black colleges continually produce "incredibly talented" students in the area of STEM -- an increasingly crucial aspect in current and future warfare.
"I think they're intellectually curious, I think they're absolutely fearless," he said. "I believe their ability to challenge the status quo and prior assumptions is exactly the kind of mindset that we need."
All of the nation's academic institutions, he added, play a vital role in helping the military as it operates in an era of great power competition against near-peer threats.
"We definitely cannot survive and excel, and compete and win globally, without our academic institutions," he said.
He told the three cadets and others in the audience that they've been built to take this on.
"This is your time," he said. "I'm not one of these leaders who are out there wringing our hands about the next generation that is coming behind us. I believe you bring some essential skillsets that are a part of who you are to the table."
He then shared a few tips he had observed in his decades of service.
"The difference between those who succeed and those who don't," he said, "sometimes comes down to the ability to recognize an opportunity that presents itself."
On top of seizing the moment, the general pushed the cadets to always be prepared in whatever they do.
"Being prepared takes you a long way, regardless of whether you decide to stay in the Army for 33 years … or you decide to get out after three to four years and discover the next iPhone," he said.
In a video during the ceremony, Berry also offered some advice to his classmates as he embarks on his next journey.
Throughout his time in the ROTC program, he said he had learned that there are three types of people in life: potatoes, eggs and coffee beans.
"A potato in hot water goes in hard and comes out soft; an egg goes in soft and comes out hard," he said. "But a coffee bean changes the composition of the water. And that is what I wish to leave to my fellow cadets -- is to always be the coffee bean."