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Is There a Doctor in the Dorm?

Enlisted Airmen with Ph.D's

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Updated May 25, 2004
by Master Sgt. Chuck Roberts

When Al Colangelo boarded the bus for basic training in 1977, his dad told him, “Get all the education you can while you’re in.”

Twenty years later, he retired not only as a master sergeant with a master’s degree, but also in hot pursuit of a doctorate in organizational leadership.

Had he remained on active duty another three years, he would have held the title of sergeant and doctor. Uncommon perhaps, but not unique.

Among approximately 297,000 enlisted Airmen, 17 — or less than .01 percent — currently possess Ph.D.s or professional degrees in fields such as music, law and dentistry, according to Air Force Personnel Center statistics. By comparison, among about 73,000 officers, approximately 1,000 — or 1.4 percent — claim doctorate degrees, and approximately 5,600 — or 7.7 percent — have professional degrees.

The 17 enlisted men and women with doctorate and professional degrees range from senior airman to chief master sergeant. Others, like Staff Sgt. Tanya Davis and Tech. Sgt. Angelo Thomas, are working hard to join their ranks.

But as Dr. Colangelo pointed out, the journey from airman basic to the highest ranks of academia is demanding and requires support from the home front. But the rewards can be great both individually and for the Air Force.

“I wanted to climb that mountain and put that peg in the top,” he said of his desire to pursue a doctorate as a master sergeant serving as superintendent of the Airman Leadership School at Kapaun Air Station, Germany. He currently works only a short distance away from the school at the Warrior Preparation Center at Einsiedlerhof Air Station as the information technology instructor controller.

An itch to learn

Like many young recruits, Dr. Colangelo joined the Air Force to take advantage of its academic benefits. He quickly became hooked on higher education and earned a bachelor’s degree in 10 years while serving as an air conditioner and refrigeration planner/estimator for civil engineering. He soon felt the “itch to learn” again and emerged from the classroom two years later with dual masters’ degrees in adult and higher education and human relations.

He faced the same decision to try for a commission as other enlisted members who possess a college diploma, but elected to finish his career wearing stripes. But that didn’t mean an end to education. When a University of Oklahoma professor suggested he was “Ph.D. material,” he applied for and was accepted into the school’s initial European doctorate program.

Almost without exception, the reaction from both enlisted and officers who he worked with were only positive. In fact, his wing commander gave him his thesis idea on how to be a follower. He put his education to work while still enlisted by helping those around him improve their writing and speaking skills, as well as influencing Airmen to continue their educations.

A dentist and an Airman

That’s what Senior Airman Herodina Lu continues to do at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, where she works as a dental assistant while holding a doctorate of dental medicine from the Philippines. The 27-year-old San Diego native moved there when her father retired from the Navy and spent six years completing her doctoral studies there.

Unable to take national board exams there because of her U.S. citizenship, Airman Lu moved to New Jersey and began looking for work and laying the groundwork to take the U.S. national board exams. Unable to find employment, she responded to a newspaper recruiting ad and soon became an enlisted dental assistant.

“I have no regrets going enlisted,” Airman Lu said. Although she tends to keep her academic credentials to herself, people usually find out. However, she’s treated the same as anyone else except for being called “Dr. Lu” on occasion at her previous base. “I’m very humble about it,” she said.

She’s also pragmatic about her status. Airman Lu said she enjoys the opportunity to observe skills of various Air Force dentists and hopes to implement what she sees into her own practice one day. In the meantime, like most new Airmen, she stays busy taking career correspondence courses and studying for promotion. But, she also tries to find time to prepare for the two national dental board exams and the ensuing state exam.

Airman Lu said she’d like to receive a commission and become an Air Force dentist, but not for a career. Instead, she’d like to separate after her initial term of service and focus her talents on helping the poor and needy. “It’s a lot of hurdles, but I know I’ll get there.”

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