When Shalela Dowdy came to Murphy High School as a freshman, she didn’t know what JROTC was. She found that a lot of the students who took it did so because they thought it was a way out of physical education requirements.
As it turned out, JROTC was the first step toward a college education and a satisfying career for Dowdy.
Now a West Point graduate and a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, the former cross-country and track star is a company executive officer for an air defense battalion at Fort Bliss, Texas, working with the Army’s Patriot missile defense systems. It all started when she joined the JROTC program at Murphy as a sophomore.
“The program instilled values within the students that many students who were not in JROTC did not get – leadership, discipline,” said Dowdy. “I feel like it was a program that elevated us above our peers in high school.”
Former Murphy JROTC instructor Steven E. Garner, whom Dowdy considers a mentor, said she came into JROTC already equipped with the discipline of a talented track and field athlete. JROTC helped her refine her communication skills and become a leader, he said.
“Over the years, she evolved from just being a basic cadet to being a battalion commander, which is the top of a 160-person program,” Garner said. “This took a lot. She learned those things from other people, as well as developing them within herself.”
It was Garner, Dowdy said, that helped steer her to West Point, where she was able to take the foundation that JROTC helped her build and turn it into a career. The military – either through enlistment or matriculating through a service academy – is another of the Alabama Department of Education’s six pathways to college and career readiness.
It is a pathway that can draw all levels of students. Garner noted that during his 21 years as a JROTC instructor at Murphy, he and the program sought to serve many of those students who fell somewhere below the academic upper crust.
“Where we focus is on those young folks who have to go in the general direction of either going to junior college or going into the workforce,” he said. “What we focus on is developing those skills within them as well as a little bit of history, a little bit of patriotism, a little bit of citizenship, so the young folks can make a conscious decision when they get out as to whether they want to enter the workforce or they want to go to college or they want to go into the military.”
But the pathway can also be a fit for someone like Dowdy, who had a multitude of other options. She ultimately chose West Point over Alabama because she wanted to challenge herself.
“I always was someone who was interested in choosing something or doing something that’s not easy,” Dowdy said. “I knew a service academy would be a challenge. It wouldn’t just be, ‘Hey I went to college and I completed that.’ At West Point, there were three pillars – the academic pillar, the physical pillar and the military pillar. … It was a little bit more structured and I knew it was going to be challenging and I thought that was something I wanted to overcome.”
In addition to her military career, Dowdy has remained active in running through participating in road races and coaching youth track and field, is involved in the Junior Career Alumni Mentorship Program at Murphy, and has added a new hobby – competing in beauty pageants. After competing in the Miss Alabama USA pageant, Dowdy won the Miss Alabama U.S. Universal crown and will compete for Miss U.S. Universal this summer in Reno, Nevada.
“Growing up as a young girl, you … watch the pageants that come on TV and think, ‘Oh, I want that to be me someday,’” she said. “I like to consider myself to be a Renaissance woman. I like to do a whole lot of different things.”
Professionally, Dowdy believes the next step in her career might be to become a minority recruitment officer or possibly to go to law school. For anyone interested in a career like hers, she said JROTC is the first step.
“Definitely take advantage of what JROTC offers,” Dowdy said. “If you’re just going to class and that’s it, that’s not the right answer. The lessons and the values and the principles that are taught within that program can be applied to many different aspects of life once you leave (high school).”