Holm Center’s ‘Purple’ summer project

Brigadier Gen. Leslie Maher stands at attention on a stage during her assumption of command ceremony.

Brigadier Gen. Leslie Maher took command of Air University’s Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development during a change of command ceremony presided by Lt. Gen. James Hecker, AU commander and president, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, May 21, 2020. Maher, formerly the senior military assistant to the secretary of the Air Force, took over command from Brig. Gen. Christopher Niemi. The Holm Center produces more than 85 percent of the Air Force’s active duty, Guard and Reserve line officers and judge advocates, chaplains and medical officers. (Photo by William Birchfield)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

As a former “foreign kid” in Brazil’s National War College, I was challenged with learning and operating in a language not of my own. I experienced the very real fear that my intellect would be surmised from my inability to smoothly converse, convince and direct others in Portuguese. These are the same challenges many of our Air Force ROTC cadets experience when English is their second language.  

On the surface, many of these ROTC cadets’ ability to converse seems fully functional.  However, when challenged with standardized testing, their verbal and overall scores suffer greatly. The general advice is “just study more,” “watch more TV,” or “you need to try harder.”  But, it’s not that simple. It takes years to develop the language and grammar required to write term papers, understand technical manuals or legal briefs and excel at standardized tests. 

The data speaks for itself. Cadets raised in non-English speaking cultures have consistently commissioned at lower rates compared to mainland AFROTC programs (approximately 50%).  Not only do these cadets typically perform lower on all facets of the Air Force Officer Qualification Test, they are usually ranked in the bottom-third in Field Training performance, are less frequently selected for unique cadet opportunities, miss opportunities to compete for competitive Air Force specialty codes (e.g. pilot and other rated slots) and often fail to commission. This is entirely due to low performance on the verbal component of the AFOQT.  These are cadets who, in their native languages and cultures, are otherwise extremely competitive, carrying 3.5+ GPAs in engineering, pre-med and other STEM degrees – degrees the Air and Space Forces desire most.

Last summer, Lt. Col. Angelic Gonzalez, commander, University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, AFROTC Detachment 756, and Capt. Yasmin Fernandez, instructor, Officer Training School here, challenged me to take on the issue of improving cadet and officer trainee verbal testing performance for those cadets disadvantaged by not having been raised and educated in an English-speaking culture. So, I challenged them back: develop a proposal, and I will clear the way for a beta test.  They took that challenge and got to work. 

Within two months, Gonzalez and her partner commander, Lt. Col. Shawn McPherson of AFROTC Detachment 755, University of Puerto Rico-Rio Pedras, San Juan, consolidated a team of experts across Defense Language Institute, Air Education and Training Command, the Holm Center and Army linguistic contractors. Together, they shaped the problem and formulated possible solutions. Through collecting, consolidating and analyzing a decade’s worth of cadet performance data, these leaders took a subjective and qualitative problem and added a layer of quantitative substance that demonstrated the scope of the problem and exposed measurable, challengeable, goals.  This enabled me to communicate with fellow leaders--Maj. Gen. Andrea Tullos, commander, Second Air Force, her team at DLI and Col. Alex Ganster, commander, Air University International Officer School--about the potential impact this program could have, both in demonstrating our commitment to our core values and in increasing diversity within the Air Force officer ranks. This became the Puerto Rico Project Language program, or PRPL, also known as “Purple.”  Using funds already earmarked for professional development, the Holm Center brought 45 language-challenged cadets (43 Hispanic, one Filipino and one Korean) to Maxwell for a five-week English immersion program. 

Why Maxwell? Why not use DLI’s home unit at San Antonio?  It was important that this test bring the cadets to a community where it would be difficult to “cheat” during the immersive process. San Antonio is a fantastic place to work on your Spanish, therefore a very easy place for our Hispanic-American cadets to slip back into their native language. However, Montgomery, Alabama, does not have the same environment and serves our purposes well.  The students were required to engage in English for 100% of their stay at the base. Montgomery also provided a fantastic challenge for expanded vocabulary through its historical and cultural offerings, heightening the academic level of language experience commiserate with the test and follow-on schools in which these cadets would attend. 

New Idea?  No, the United States Army has been doing this for years, investing in DLI instructor teams throughout the most-needed regions of our nation. The Air Force, being much a smaller force and seeking higher technical skills, has not engaged in this practice on an enterprise scale.   

Throughout the test, I observed and got to know these special cadets. Each of their stories imprinted on me their capability for leadership. In fact, Cadet Alvin Kan from the University of Washington and our only Korean-speaking student sought me out. He wanted to express his thanks for being a part of the program (he easily passed his test!). Moreover, he wanted to make sure I knew that every student he had studied with demonstrated keen leadership and superior traits of character. He was honored to be afforded a chance to serve with them. 

One particular example of this character was Cadet Samuel Franqui-Rios. Franqui took every opportunity presented to improve his speaking, yet his native accent was very noticeable, even to the very end of the beta test. However, his desire to improve was very apparent. On the last day, he stood to share his gratitude to Lt. Gen. James Hecker, president and commander of Air University, at the group’s award breakfast. Through very broken English, he spoke of what the program meant to him, an emotional-filled journey of overcoming adversity. Later that week, I received his scores: he had improved from 6 to 47 (15 is the qualifying score) – the highest jump in the class. Two of his classmates were immediately commissioned and are now second lieutenants, heading off to their initial skills training and follow-on assignments.

Did it work? For the majority of the students, it did. Over 50% of the cadets achieved a passing score, enabling them to continue their journey to commission and seek the career paths of their choice. Overall, 65% of the class improved their scores, not bad for this first attempt. 

As with many of my experiences over the course of 34 years, I received much more through the PRPL experience than I gave. This experience is one of believing in the power of education and of being given an opportunity. Some just need a “hand-up,” not a “hand-out.” 

We look forward to doing it again next year and to expanding it across the entire ROTC enterprise so that all high-potential English as a Second Language cadets can get a “hand-up” in gaining access to an equal starting position.