Coraopolis, Pa. --
Graduating high school is one of the first major accomplishments in an adolescent’s life. It is at that moment when a child gets their diploma that they realize, it is just the beginning. It is still a cherished moment even though roughly 3.7 million kids in the U.S. celebrate the same achievement every year. However, not everyone will have an opportunity to share in this celebration. There are millions of kids growing up in tough neighborhoods with obstacles that hinder the likelihood of graduating high school and moving on to a path towards a career. These potential roadblocks are greater for kids in predominantly African American neighborhoods. These obstacles and more stood in the way of Tech. Sgt. Ronnice Massengill, a production recruiter assigned to the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Pennsylvania Air National Guard.
Massengill recently attended total force recruiting school at Joint Base San Antonio-Langley, Texas where she introduced herself with a short story. One where she walks across a stage in front of a room full of minorities at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania city school, receives her diploma from her school’s superintendent, and is greeted at the end of the stage by her mother holding her two-week-old daughter.
Like every other kid in the U.S., this was just the beginning of Massengill’s journey. She grew up in Homewood, Pennsylvania. Homewood is one of 90 distinct neighborhoods within the city limits of Pittsburgh and has a population of 3,280 people where 97.8% are African American.
As a young child growing up in Homewood, she did not understand that gang violence, teen pregnancy, and frequent drug use are uncommon in most neighborhoods. “It’s all we ever knew,” said Massengill “all I have ever known was Homewood so I thought that was just normal.”
Her father served in the Army National Guard and pushed her to become more than a product of her environment. “I’m lucky because my dad was always there for me, he was always in my corner giving me advice and telling me to keep moving forward.”
Like her neighborhood, her high school was not diverse with the student body being primarily African American. “There were so many incredibly smart kids that I went to school with that never got a chance because people didn’t believe in them. Because of the color of our skin, no one gave us the time of day.” One of the major issues with teenagers in Homewood is that boys were more susceptible to being involved in gangs. This resulted in some of the boys having criminal records before they turned 18 or worse, being killed due to some form of gun violence. Girls face issues like getting pregnant and not finishing high school to raise their children. Massengill was a part of this statistic when she became pregnant during her senior year of high school. Her father encouraged her and would not let her quit so she continued to study and earned her diploma. She cherished her achievement on graduation day for about 30 seconds before returning to her responsibilities as a young mother.
She uses her past experiences when speaking with potential recruits. “I love going back to my hometown to talk to these kids and tell them that they can beat this system like me. There is more to life than just Homewood. I try to encourage them and tell them that these gangs won’t be there forever and raising a baby is one of the hardest things to do.” Massengill wants to help people in these neighborhoods because she has that opportunity. This is the platform she can use to help break the mold. She tries to educate recruits on the opportunities the National Guard can provide to them even if they come from a tough neighborhood like Homewood.
She believes that her upbringing has helped her flourish as a recruiter despite how stressful her career can be. “Sometimes I see my co-workers struggling with things and I just wonder, is this what really stresses you out?” She has seen classmates not return to school because they had been killed due to gang violence. She also has stories about some of her other friends having lengthy scars on their bodies because of emergency life-saving surgery after they had been struck by a stray bullet. She gave birth to a girl weeks before submitting her high school senior project. The mental trauma that she has endured in her early life heavily outweighs any of her current assignments. “I’m the way I am because it’s the way I was raised. Sometimes, people look at me differently, but they don’t understand what I’ve been through. They don’t know where I’ve been, the things I’ve seen or the issues I’ve had to overcome. But we can change that, just ask me, or someone like me about my past. Take the time to learn a little bit about me. You may realize that we aren’t so different.”
Massengill worked hard so she did not become a victim of her environment. She still lives near Homewood and visits regularly because of the friends and family that still live there. She didn’t let anything stop her from earning her high school diploma and enlisting in the ANG. She hopes to be an example in her community of what you can accomplish even if the odds are stacked against you.