Once a month, the prospect of soft pretzels and cinnamon rolls coupled with dizzying rides on the carousel drew Jasmin Perez and her grandmother, Maria Algarin, to the Gurnee Mills Mall. With every visit, Perez and her grandmother encountered service members strutting around the mall in their uniforms.
“My grandma was always in awe of how sharp and professional they looked,” said Perez.
On more than one occasion, Algarin said she would turn to her granddaughter and say, “Me encantaría verte con un uniforme así.”
I would love to see you in a uniform like that.
Grasping her grandmother’s hand while shopping, this little girl from Chicago was unaware the future was whispering in her ear and parading down the corridors of a mall.
Perez is now a senior Army ROTC Cadet at the University of Tampa in Florida. She is graduating in the spring and will be wearing that service uniform as an officer in the United States Army.
Perez will be the first person in her Puerto Rican family to enter the U.S. Army. She credits her grandmother’s love of spiffy uniforms and constant support in helping her achieve this goal.
Born to a single mother on the west side of Chicago, Perez said her predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood was dangerous for a young child. And so, Perez spent time inside with her grandmother watching their favorite telenovela, Sortilegio, and learning to cook aromatic arroz y frijoles.
As Perez reached school-age, her grandmother continued to be a guiding presence in her life.
“When I went to high school, I had to pick between swimming and JROTC and my grandma told me, ‘This is your chance to wear one of those nice uniforms,’” Perez said. “So, I decided to join JROTC and that’s when I fell in love with the uniforms and the structure of drill and ceremony in the military.”
Her senior year of high school at Lane Tech College Prep Perez faced the ever-present obstacle of paying for college. Her grandmother recalls that even with financial packages, they still couldn’t afford tuition. Perez would either have to take out student loans or rely on her family for financial help—not an option.
“Jasmin has always been one to try to solve things on her own,” Algarin said. “She had learned information from a recruiter on how they help pay for college and so she told us she was going to go forward with joining [the Army].”
While still a senior in high school, Perez enlisted in the Army Reserves as a way to continue her studies and not fall behind financially. She headed off to basic training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) shortly after graduation. She fueled her love of the medical field and helping others by completing her training to become a certified combat medic. During training, Perez saw how officers played a different role than enlisted soldiers.
“That inspired my interest to see what it would be like to be an officer, and it motivated me to make the change and join my [college’s] ROTC program while still being an SMP Cadet.”
The Simultaneous Membership Program (SMP) gives enlisted members the opportunity to maintain status with their Reserve units while attending college. They participate as a contracted Cadet in an Army ROTC program and work towards commissioning as an Officer in the Army.
After completing AIT, Perez researched undergraduate psychology programs and found that the University of Tampa was near the top. She loved the look of the campus and said when she visited it felt very safe. For someone so close to family, moving over 1,000 miles away for school was a huge jump outside of her comfort zone—but she was ready for it.
“The motivator was just to get out and expand my opportunities somewhere else. I wanted to travel and learn new things,” Perez said.
Accepted into the school and ROTC program, she had down time before classes started in the spring, so she worked in Chicago as a full-time Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) to earn money and put her training to good use. Perez started each shift not knowing what the day would bring. On the calmest or the craziest of days, the education she received during AIT was invaluable.
“Even though I was born and raised in Chicago I got to explore and learn more about Chicago while working as an EMT,” she said.
In January 2018, one year after joining the Army, the time came for Perez to leave for college. Her grandmother panicked.
“I didn’t want anything bad happening to her because she is my closest grandchild,” Algarin said. “I analyzed the situation and figured that if that is what she wants, let it be, and let God protect her. I could do nothing more than just cheer her on and keep her motivated always.”
Algarin continues to pray, especially when her granddaughter has high ropes or obstacle courses — really anything with heights.
“I know that is her biggest fear,” she said. “But she always pushes through and completes them, which is no surprise. She has such a strong drive.”
Algarin has overcome her own obstacles. She raised three children on her own while working multiple jobs to support her family.
“Since my mom was always at work, my grandma was the one who raised me and taught me so many different sayings and beliefs,” Perez said. “I learned all the wisdom she had from her tough experiences in raising three kids by herself and working all day and night.”
Whether Perez is creating a monthly budget or doing laundry, Algarin’s influence is woven throughout the narrative of her granddaughter’s life.
“She taught me, ‘Don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do for today,’” Perez said.
This can-do attitude is why Perez has excelled during her time with the University of Tampa’s Army ROTC program, even while continuing her service in the Army Reserves back home in Chicago. She is currently the Cadet Battalion Commander, a position held by the top Cadet at UT and appointed by the professor of military science. She says her involvement in ROTC has made an impact on how she plans to lead other soldiers.
“It’s shown me what the true value is all about. It's not about you, it's about everyone as a whole,” Perez said. “Be a servant leader who helps and develops others, don't worry about yourself. ROTC did a great job in showcasing different scenarios and putting me in stressful situations where I had to be a leader.”
Perez never imagined that quiet girl who preferred to stay indoors and watch telenovelas would be an inspiration to her peers. She is continually pushed out of her comfort zone, relying on her strength as well as the strength of the soldiers she leads.
“She used to be so shy, but now she shines bright,” Algarin said.
Perez will graduate this coming May with a degree in Psychology. After commissioning, Perez will join the Medical Services in the Army Reserves and focus on completing her doctorate in behavioral health. She hopes to be accepted into the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) in order to advance her education in the behavioral health field.
Down the road, Perez sees herself completing an internship and residency program with the military to become a behavioral health officer. She always felt a strong calling toward helping soldiers get through tough times.
“I want to see others develop by my guidance and have them reach successes they didn't think they had the potential to reach,” she said. “I want to show them that it's possible to gain different perspectives.”
As Perez steps forward beginning the next phase of her life, her grandmother, of course, has to give another valuable piece of advice.
“Keep on rising up and reach your fullest potential, reach a point where you feel like you have succeeded. Do not get frustrated, or nervous. Little by little everything will come your way,” Algarin said.
Long-term, Perez hopes to make the Army her career. Perez feels she has a valuable role to play in the story of the Army with her personal drive to become bigger and better every day.
When reflecting on her heritage and how it translates to the Army, Perez said she hopes to play a part in the culture of inclusion that is working to eliminate barriers. She sees herself as an influence for the future generation of soldiers she plans to lead.
“To someone who comes from a minority background, I would remind you that your appearance doesn’t define you, only your leadership and personality does,” she said. “Don’t stop when obstacles get in your way, find your way around them and never give up.”
About Army ROTC
Army ROTC is one of the best leadership courses in the country and is part of your college curriculum. Through classes and field training, Army ROTC provides you with the tools to become an Army Officer without interfering with your other classes. ROTC also provides you with discipline and money for tuition while enhancing your college experience.
Army ROTC offers pathways to becoming an Army Officer for high school students, current active duty Soldiers, and for current National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers through the Simultaneous Membership Program.
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