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Phoenix Forward magazine

Navy master chief turns rejection into opportunity

Evelyn “Vonn” Banks

In 2005, then-U.S. Navy Master Chief Evelyn “Vonn” Banks was interviewing for a high-level enlisted position in the service when the conversation took an unexpected turn.

“I was told, ‘Your operational performance is head and shoulders above your peers, but you don’t have a college degree,’” Banks recalls. “I didn’t get the job because I was the only candidate without a formal education beyond high school.”

For someone with an exemplary Navy career spanning more than 20 years, the words stung — but they also served as a catalyst. Hours later, Banks, then 50, did an Internet search and found University of Phoenix. Within two weeks, she began studying for her associate degree.

Banks became unstoppable. By Fall 2012, she already was hard at work on her fourth University degree — a doctorate in organizational leadership — to cap off her associate, bachelor’s and Master of Management degrees.

Her education, coupled with her experience, is paying off. This month, Banks retired from her role as command master chief for Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) in Washington, D.C. As the senior enlisted person there, Banks says she was “the right arm of the commanding officer,” advising him on all issues that can affect a Navy command, including overall mission and readiness.

I didn’t get the job because I was the only candidate without a formal education beyond high school.

With such a high-level military role involving considerable responsibility and a heavy travel schedule, online classes allowed Banks to do her job and complete her schoolwork. But she’s gained much more than convenience. Taking classes with people all over the world whom she’s never met, she says, has helped her become more articulate and hone her writing and critical-thinking skills.

On a personal level, Banks says pursuing an education has helped her understand how she can be a better leader. She says she puts what she learns into her “leadership toolkit” to share with others. “No matter who I'm talking to,” she notes, “there’s something in that knowledge base to help with whatever issue they bring my way.”

In fact, building the toolkit has inspired her to dream big about her post-military plans, and she’s created quite the bucket list to check off since retiring from the Navy. She says she hopes to become involved in politics and plans to write a book about her life lessons. After earning her doctorate, she intends to teach.

Banks knows she may never have considered all these opportunities had she not decided to go to school, which is why she wants others to see the value in education.

Those who leave the Navy, she notes, may have difficulty getting a job commensurate with their skills if they don’t have a degree. And those within the Navy can find it challenging to get beyond enlisted without one.

Others can learn from her example, whether or not they’re in the service. “It’s not what happens to you,” she says. “It’s how you respond to it.”

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