FORT STEWART, GA. – From an early age, Sgt. Saleena Dodson’s mother told her that “knowledge is power.” Dodson internalized this message and made up her mind as a child that she would attain the highest level of education possible. She did. Saleena earned a doctorate in epidemiology from Temple University in Nov. 2020. She is now formally titled Dr. Saleena Dodson.
Saleena is no stranger to academic success. She graduated valedictorian in 2011 from the Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton, NJ. At the age of five, Saleena said she began to manifest her reality, telling everyone that “I’m going to be a (Rutgers University) Scarlett Knight.” After graduating high school, she became a Scarlett Knight where she would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in public health. Saleena’s mother, Nichelle Dodson, was the driving force for her academic dreams.
“I always wanted to give back to my mother, but I didn’t know how,” said Saleena, an automated logistical specialist assigned to the 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 35th Theater Tactical Signal Brigade. “I want something that she’ll be proud of, and say ‘my daughter did something not many women her age have done.”’ Saleena recounted that her mother never gave up when times got hard. She remembers seeing her mom walk to work, and coming home to a house with no food in the refrigerator and no electricity. Nichelle would say, “It’s going to get better. It’s going to get better.” Saleena said this message led her to adopt the motto, “If you weather the storm, you’ll see the sunshine in the end.” She would go on to face many storms during her academic career.
Saleena joined the U.S. Army on Sept. 11, 2017 while pursuing her master’s degree from Rutgers University. She put her degree on hold so she could ship off to basic training. After graduation, Saleena was able to restart her classes during Advanced Individual Training (AIT) because she regained access to her cell phone. Saleena laughed as she said, “I was working on my master’s in AIT, and was on my phone typing my thesis.” On the weekends, her friends would take passes to go to the mall, and she would stay in working on assignments and would conduct research until 2 a.m. This was her routine seven days a week.
While pursuing her doctorate, Saleena shared that tragedy struck on July 1, 2020. “I had a miscarriage and at that moment, I contemplated withdrawing from the doctoral program because I felt I didn’t have anything else to live for or succeed for, because I had lost my child. At that moment, something came over me, and said ‘I need to find an outlet,’ so I immediately prayed, sought out counseling and the support of family and friends. Quickly that changed. I do have something to live for now. This is my drive – to keep going for my child,” she said. “I realized you will face storms, but if you weather the storm, you can enjoy the sunshine.” Saleena’s educational focus on public health has also been very personal.
She chose to study public health because she witnessed firsthand how poor diets impacted her family. “I have to be the change that I want to see in my family,” Saleena said. Her doctoral research focused on the correlation between bodegas in urban communities and childhood obesity. She believes there needs to be greater access to fresh, healthy foods in cities like her hometown of Trenton to combat childhood obesity. “One of my goals for the near future is to open fresh food markets in at least three urban communities and in my city,” Saleena said. When it comes to healthy food access, “You can’t get what you don’t have,” she said. Saleena is now using the inspiration her mother gave her to motivate her Soldiers to achieve their dreams.
One of those Soldiers is Pfc. Jaron Hagans, a wheeled vehicle mechanic assigned to 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion. Hagans enjoys painting, and is planning to enroll at Georgia Southern University to study art.
“She has inspired me a lot. She told me it is not an easy route to go to college. She told me to do something I like, and be mature enough to put in the work,” he said. Saleena said, “I tell my Soldiers every day, no matter what, keep going. I’m a living example of that. If you give up, you’ll never see what the reward is like in the end.” Of the 11 Soldiers in Dodson’s office, eight of them are now enrolled in an associate’s degree program. Saleena has a message for those who are inspired to achieve their own education goals.
“Tell yourself, I can succeed – I will succeed. Nothing will hold me back, but me. Anything is possible if you just believe. Don’t allow anyone to limit your success.” Saleena has now had time to reflect on her educational accomplishments, while serving on active duty. She summarized her academic achievement best by saying, “I’m seeing the sunshine now.”