Growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, First Lieutenant Jessica Rawls aspired to play basketball competitively, however, her interest in service opportunities was sparked when she talked with her sister about the Naval Academy.
At first, Rawls and her sister were hesitant about committing to the military, but their high school teacher encouraged them to take another look, particularly at the United States Military Academy West Point.
“After looking up some videos online, and going to visit there, we decided that we wanted to go - not only because of the opportunities we would receive as West Point graduates but also being able to figure out our “why” of pursuing the military.”
This second thought about West Point became an opportunity for Rawls to pursue her bachelor’s degree, while gaining experiencing at one of the most prestigious military service colleges in the country.
As Rawls progressed through her program, she recognized that her motivation for serving was to help others, “I didn’t realize that the majority of soldiers in the military are minors, and a lot of times, their only opportunity to get a job with access to things like healthcare, and assistance – is by going through the military.”
Her combined military experience and interest in industrial engineering, led her to choose operations research at the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE). Throughout the graduate program she started building connections with Associate Dean Damon Williams, and General Ronald Johnson, who provided valuablementorship and guidance throughout the program.
“I can’t even imagine Georgia Tech without Damon Williams, General Johnson, and the industrial engineering program. I was very surprised about how much the department truly cares about their students. Damon and General Johnson really took me underneath their wing and made sure I was succeeding.”
As a West Point graduate and current faculty member at Georgia Tech, Johnson spoke about his connection with Rawls and efforts to increase diversity in the school's programs and faculty. Johnson highlights the unique qualities that West Point graduates possess, such as athleticism, leadership, and teamwork skills, that make them valuable additions to Georgia Tech.
Prior to her promotion, Rawls was awarded the GEM Fellowship (Graduate Engineering Minority) by the National GEM Consortium, which advances thousands of underrepresented students in the field of engineering. General Johnson believes bringing West Point graduates, particularly those receiving the GEM fellowship, is a critical step when creating a more inclusive and equitable academic environment within Georgia Tech's STEM programs.
The bridge between West Point and ISyE has become an impactful space to be in, where students like Rawls are given the chance to feel uplifted and supported in the field by diverse faculty members.
After graduation this May, Rawls will be attending a basic officer leadership course in Virginia. Then she’ll be departing to her duty station, with high hopes for placement in Germany or Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Ultimately, her goal is to become an operations research systems analyst and return to West Point as an instructor, where she hopes to inspire and guide future students, specifically those who may feel underrepresented.
Rawls dedication to her field and her desire to give back to her community make her story a testament to the power of self-discovery, and how exploring different options can lead to unexpected but fulfilling paths in life. “Living my life… I’m feeling really good about being by myself and discovering who I am.” says First Lieutenant Jessica Rawls.