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LEAP Spotlight: 1st Lt. Mariah C. Pérez

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  • By AFCLC Outreach Team

“My language journey began when I was a child. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, where the first official language is Spanish; however, English was the primary language taught in school. In college, courses were taught in Spanish, but most business resources were in English. 

“In 2018, I graduated from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in Accounting and commissioned as a 38F, Force Support Officer. Later, I was assigned to the 350th Special Warfare Training Squadron as a Section Commander at JBSA-Lackland. Shortly after, I joined the Language Enabled Airman Program as a Spanish Scholar.

“I heard about LEAP as a cadet. Our cadre supported the program and encouraged us to apply. It seemed to be an opportunity to integrate my native language and increase cultural awareness. 

“In 2019, the Air Force opened doors to different opportunities, like being part of the translation team for the Inter-American Air Forces Academy’s Western Hemisphere Exchange Symposium; during this event, our team translated multiple documents and facilitated communication between the U.S. and 17 foreign countries. In addition, this event helped to better understand the importance of building partnerships and sparked an interest in the USSOUTHCOM’s mission.

“In 2020, I earned a Master’s of Science in Human Resources Management and moved to the Air Expeditionary Force Operations and Readiness Division, AFPC, JBSA-Randolph. 

“As a LEAP Scholar, I’ve had the opportunity to attend two eMentor courses based on the ‘12 Domains of Culture,’ where I learned from native instructors and shared experiences with other Scholars. I also attended a Language Intensive Training Event at Maximo Nivel Institute in Costa Rica, where I formally studied Spanish. I was immersed in the Costa Rican culture and lifestyle during this LITE. It was a fascinating and unforgettable experience. Lastly, I was fortunate to be selected for an Advanced Special Emphasis on China’s Belt and Road Initiative LITE in Alabama. For two weeks, a group of LEAP Scholars studied China’s global economic and political influence in the target areas of responsibility.”

“The BRI LITE was an eye-opener on how China’s influence affects our partnerships with other countries. Honestly, I was ignorant of some of the topics discussed, and I’m glad I was there. I had the privilege of learning from professors in the field and collaborating with Chinese Mandarin, French, and other Spanish Scholars. We shared our perspectives throughout the training and integrated them into our final presentation. As the biggest takeaway, I further understood the importance of integrated deterrence and building partnerships. It also emphasized how we should continue to enlighten our Airmen about the current situation, its challenges, and how to contribute to it.

“Currently, I am deployed as Director of Protocol, Joint Task Force-Bravo, Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras. Upon return, I look forward to attending the Inter-American Squadron Officer Course. 

“In my current position, I work in a joint environment, including local nationals. Although most local nationals are bilingual, I enjoy communicating with them in Spanish to further develop my language skills and facilitate communication when needed. Here, I’ve had to understand and adapt to how other military branches function to work cohesively. LEAP has taught me to remain flexible and open-minded to other cultures. 

“LEAP has promoted my personal and professional growth. Before applying for LEAP, I questioned how it would enhance my native language. However, during the first eMentor session, I realized how hard it was to speak solely in Spanish since I was used to ‘Spanglish.’ I knew I couldn’t rely on ‘Spanglish’ when speaking to a monolingual; therefore, I had to practice. Since then, I’ve been working on this challenge and other weaknesses. 

“Learning a language and being able to immerse in another culture is beautiful. You don’t have anything to lose by applying for LEAP but could miss an opportunity to develop your cross-cultural and language skills by not applying. If you meet the minimum DLPT/OPI score requirement but think it isn’t ‘high’ enough to be competitive, re-think about the programs’ mission and give it a chance!

“Overall, I am grateful for all the experiences the program has provided and appreciate the Air Force Culture and Language Center’s investments. I am looking forward to more opportunities where I can continue to learn, challenge myself, and contribute directly to the Air Force mission.”

-Spanish LEAP Scholar 1st Lt. Mariah C. Pérez

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