Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Dana Fernkas recounts that she was still trying to find her path in life when the world was thrown into turmoil following the September 11 attacks in New York.

“During my second year of college, I dropped my major with no replacement in mind. In the wake of 9/11, I decided it was time to contribute to a bigger picture and enlisted into the Air Force,” Fernkas said. “Since then, it’s been engrained in me that learning and development is always a continuous process that’s never finished, and you should also try to inspire those around you to strive to be the best version of themselves and never settle for mediocracy.”

Fernkas, who currently serves as a Senior Enlisted Leader and is responsible for the career development of 65 servicemembers, recently met with female student athletes at Chancellor High School in Fredericksburg, Va., as part of a leadership initiative facilitated by DistrictWON, a U.S. Air Force partner in marketing and local engagement. She spoke to members of Chancellor’s girls tennis, junior varsity and varsity soccer, softball, and track teams.

Fernkas shared that in her experience growing up, military service options were not as “well-advertised” in specific regions of the country.

“I feel like there was a stigma that people who joined the military after high school did so because they were too stupid to go to college which is completely untrue,” she said. “Some of the smartest people I know in the military joined right after high school.”

She added that while there are certain combat roles that are still not open to female soldiers, “it’s simply not true that women are never at the tip of the spear.”

“For women specifically, I think there were stereotypes [when I first joined] that the only jobs available to them were support roles and the men had the important jobs,” Fernkas said. “I think it’s great that the military is doing a better job of reaching out to wider audiences, and its especially beneficial to speak directly to women so obsolete or misinformation is dispelled from the start.”

Len Carlson, athletic director at Chancellor High School, said Fernkas did a great job presenting her story as well as the options and opportunities that young women can experience in the military.

“[The presentation was] very beneficial for our female athletes to hear and know that all opportunities are open to them after high school with the Air Force,” said Carlson, who served in the Army National Guard and took advantage of the education support after his service. “[The girls were] excited about the opportunities the Air Force offers [and there were] many questions by the students about daily life, jobs, and more in the military.”

Fernkas shared the wide range of roles available in almost every avenue within the Air Force and noted that an individual can train in several professions and disciplines if they so choose.

“Prior experience isn’t even required when picking a profession, the Air Force will train you and get you certified,” she said. “The main takeaway is you will learn how to be outside of your comfort zone and those skills will carry over into all aspects of your life.”

According to the 2022 Demographics Profile of the Military Community released by the U.S. Department of Defense, the percentage of active-duty military women has increased 2.9 percent while the women in the selected reserve has risen by 4.4 percent.

“Four years of high school feels like an eternity, but after graduation, four years goes by in the wink of an eye. A four-year enlistment will give you job experience, exposure to life outside of your hometown, and free education and health benefits,” Fernkas said. “Bottom line, if you serve your enlistment honorably, you will have more advantages in life than not joining the military.”