STATE COLLEGE, Pa. --
When he was born in South Topeka, Kansas, in the 1930s, the odds of Frank Petersen becoming something -- anything -- were few and far between. America was the land of the free and the home of Jim Crow. Racial segregation and inequality flowed through the fabric of the country. Opportunity for a young, African-American man like Petersen to succeed was nearly nonexistent.
Yet, Petersen found a way to not only rise above the times, but to escape the bounds of gravity to become the first African-American Marine Corps aviator and the Corps' first African-American general officer.
Petersen’s exceptional talents as a Marine officer and aviator may never have come to fruition had he never been aware of the opportunities offered in the Marines. It was more likely that his gift, like those of many of his contemporaries, would be lost to the injustice of his era.
Drawing upon Petersen’s impressive legacy, Marines from units throughout the eastern United States came together at Penn State University in State College, Pa., Thursday to teach a leadership seminar and discuss Marine Corps opportunities to more than 30 members of the Penn State Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.
This meeting of the minds afforded the students, many of whom had notconsidered military service as an option, the chance to learn about the benefits of serving from Marine officers who share a common background and can speak about the benefits of serving in the Marine Corps.
"It's important that we continue to push the Marine Corps into a more diverse area,” said Maj. Jerome Stovall, company commander of Combat Service Support Company, The Basic School, Quantico, Va. "It's very important for me to see the Marine Corps reach a community it hasn't reached in the past."
For the Marines, a strong Corps means its members reflect the face of the nation and come from varied backgrounds, said Capt. William Hollis, the officer selection officer for Recruiting Station Pittsburgh's Officer Selection Team State College. According to Hollis, the largest obstacle to achieving this goal is not qualifications or disinterest; it's simply getting the information out to the right people.
"The Marine Corps is an opportunity for these students to excel in a different venue," echoed Capt. Maurice Chapman, a student at the Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico. "Typically, African-American men and women aren't exposed to the Marine Corps and don't know what's out there. This gives us a chance to talk about the opportunities to an audience that needs to hear about it."
For the students of NSBE, meeting with a room full of decorated Marines not only impacted their leadership skills, but also allowed the two organizations with similar values to exchange ideas, said Quincy Benbow, the chapter's corporate liaison and a nuclear engineering major from Fort Washington, Md.
"We try and live by our constitution. We want to increase the number of culturally responsible Black engineers, who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community," said Benbow. "We have a good relationship with the Marines and this will help us anywhere we may need leadership abilities. Besides, who better to learn leadership from than the Marines?"
"NSBE is a great organization and their stated values align with the same values Marines pride themselves on every day," added Hollis. "These students are focused and goal-driven to succeed.”
Not only was the seminar helpful for the students, but the Marines, many with an African-American heritage, helped show that success comes in different shapes, sizes and colors -- something the students deal with on a daily basis.
"We don't see our faces on campus every day," said Brianna Hammond, the chapter president and geography major from Sterling, Va. "We see each other. We see people from urban areas and we don't want to see them fail when they're here. It's why we’re here."
The students learned about leadership, but were also able to take away a key theme from the seminar -- having a plan for the future.
"There is no way that the Marine Corps is not as competitive for advancement, promotion and pay as any Fortune 500 company," said Maj. John Hunt, commanding officer of Recruiting Station Pittsburgh. "People need to know that you can use the Marine Corps to set yourself up for future success. However, we hope that they take what we've said here and continue to grow and pursue a rewarding career, whatever it may be."
America now is much closer to the land of the free than it was when Frank Petersen enlisted in the Navy as seamen apprentice. The journey America has taken from backbreaking segregation to full and equal integration mirrors that of the Marine Corps. Now, more than ever before in the history of the Marine Corps, perhaps sometime in the future, a young Marine may look up and see a Marine officer from a campus in central Pennsylvania -- someone that looks like him -- leading the way.