Growing up a first-generation Mexican-American in the Belmont Cragin area of Northwest Chicago, Lissette Sandoval felt trapped in one box or another. Society clustered her into its views of gender, interest, and culture — stunting her growth.
“I always just wanted to play sports with the guys,” Sandoval said. “Sometimes, I wouldn’t because I would get bullied or someone would pick on me and be like ‘Why are you here?’”
The older she got, the more frustrated Sandoval became with the interpretations of what she should or shouldn’t be. She constantly heard “girls aren’t competitive, they play with dolls; they learn to cook and support the household.”
Determination, grit, and the support of an unlikely source helped Sandoval, an Army ROTC Cadet and student commander for the University of Illinois — Chicago Fire Battalion, smash through the glass ceiling and challenge boundaries that limited her as a young girl.
“It made me more resilient,” she said. “Going through all the other road blocks — big or small — from when I was younger until now, it builds that resiliency.”
These days, Sandoval wears many hats. She is the first female in her family to join the United States Army. As a full-time student and Cadet Battalion Commander, she has the responsibility of leading her peers as they prepare to enter the real world.
“My intent is for women to see how the military works, and for them to see that they don’t have to be afraid to push themselves,” she said. “I see a future where people don’t have to question whether their leaders are a man or a woman, and not caring what gender you are to accomplish the mission.”
Sandoval’s cultural barrier began with her first language: Spanish.
“I was extremely quiet and scared when I was young. People made fun of me for how I looked, and then the language thing,” she said. “When I transitioned to a bilingual classroom — there were some funny moments — but it was rough.”
Over time, her English improved and she found a community in the JROTC program at Steinmetz College Prep.
“I always admired someone in a clean fresh uniform,” she said. “I thought it was always a challenge and an honor to wear the uniform. It meant something deeper.”
Sandoval admits she hadn’t given thought to joining the military until her senior year of high school. That year she watched her sister struggle to balance two jobs while being a full-time college student. Sandoval knew she didn’t want to follow in her sister’s footsteps and saw the military as a way to pay for college.
“I wanted to make my own story,” she said.
The only problem was it went against everything she’d been taught about being a Latino woman.
“Hispanic women going into the military is not very common,” she said. “It’s definitely more of: The woman is the household and the man is the head of the household. There is less of an independent type of thing.”
While Sandoval’s mother timidly supported her, when others family members heard, they were in disbelief. Women should be raising families, not fighting in wars. Sandoval found herself in a catch-22.
“I had older brothers who toughened me up and taught me the meaning of resilience without even knowing it,” she said. “Then they expect me to be a ‘Yes’ person. It’s really hard," said Sandoval. The biggest thing that hit me about what they were trying to say was ‘She’s a woman.’”
She was frustrated that her family created doubt and limited their view of her abilities. But one person understood Sandoval’s ambition and stepped in.
“My uncle told my mother, ‘She’s going to be okay. What you need to do is let her fly,’” she said.
Sandoval’s uncle, Jose Nieves, had been a former infantry Soldier as well as a mentor to the young girl.
“He was the one that motivated me to join the Army because he knew how badly I wanted it,” Sandoval said.
“It’s everyone’s God-given right to have the privilege of serving their country, regardless of who they are,” Nieves said. “Lissette has a strong personality and determination. I knew she would be excellent at any challenges she was given. Not supporting her would have killed her dreams.”
Nieves went through the same tug-of-war with his own family when he joined the Army. His parents were “very much against me enlisting.” He remembers how alone he felt and saw Lissette’s struggle reflected in his own experience.
“Lissette comes from great family values which she lives by every day,” he said. “She is a very strong and determined young lady. Nothing will stop her once she has her mind made up.”
With the support she needed, Sandoval enlisted in the Army National Guard. After graduating high school she headed off to Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in 2017.
Trained as a 68G — a patient administration specialist — Sandoval enjoyed the work, she thrives with tasks and goals. She felt prepared for the challenges a college Army ROTC program offered when her freshman year of college began at the University of Illinois—Chicago in the fall of 2018.
The one thing she didn’t anticipate was hesitation when the time came to sign her ROTC Cadet contract. She was torn between staying enlisted or becoming an Officer. She doubted herself. All those feelings of frustrations Sandoval had growing up came flooding back.
“My uncle did it, why can’t I do it? My brothers thought I wouldn’t do it, why can’t I do it? I think I’m strong enough, why can’t I do it?” Sandoval said.
Doubts swirled in her head as she sought counsel with Cadre to discuss her future in the Army. She wanted to make a change and inspire people, but something from her past kept pulling her back.
“It hit me like a slap in the face,” she said. “I’m a female.”
Doubt turned into determination. She signed the contract and never looked back.
Sandoval has set the bar high during her time as a Simultaneous Membership Program (SMP) Cadet with Army ROTC. She is currently the Cadet Battalion Commander and plans to graduate in 2022 with a degree in Criminal Justice. She said all of her experiences — being bullied as a child, overcoming cultural stereotypes, and experiencing the Army as an enlisted Soldier — have pushed her to be a better leader and connect with her peers.
“You can motivate people all you want, but to be someone that inspires people — that’s something different,” she said. “I’m working toward being that inspirational leader where people want to look up to me.”
Sandoval said Army ROTC is a good fit for her, and she’s enjoyed testing her limits. With her sights set on a career as a Military Intelligence Officer after commissioning, she feels prepared for the next phase.
“It’s built me into who I feel I can be and who I am,” she said. “All the little things that happened have made me who I am today, and I feel like I can grasp that and be a voice for people.”
She said the Army has given her a channel to showcase both her culture and her gender in a positive light.
Before the Army, Sandoval said she rarely spoke Spanish in a professional setting because she felt it was disrespectful to speak a language people don’t know. Now, with more and more Spanish speakers joining the ranks, she’s much more comfortable slipping into her first language.
“This was kind of a culture shock moment for me when you put six or seven Hispanics wearing a uniform in a room. I was like, ‘Wow!’” she said. “I’ve started speaking more Spanish and relating that to other people and explaining it to them.”
Sandoval also sees a career for herself in the Army free of gender limitations.
“I see a future that puts women in a position of being absolutely fearless of saying or doing what they think is right,” she said. “They have a sense of total independence, where they feel that they can lead a group of people who are men or women.”
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.
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