Many of us have high ambitions, but very few aspire to be a U.S. Army general.
That is a goal Colonel Irene Zoppi is striving for next. Currently, she’s one of only 15 Latinas in the U.S. Army Reserve who holds the rank of colonel. She also happens to be a full-time professor at Strayer University in Maryland, a wife and mother of three, and a Gulf War veteran who holds a doctorate in education policy, planning and administration and a masters in business.
“I think that I’ve taken every opportunity given to me,” says the 47-year-old who moved to the U.S. mainland from Canóvanas, Puerto Rico 26 years ago, barely speaking any English. “Often, as immigrants, we don’t get every opportunity so we start looking for them. Once we find them, we continue working at them so we can get ahead.”
As a girl in Puerto Rico, she says she used to wander around the naval station where both of her parents were stationed, admiring the uniforms and the discipline around her. She ended up joining the Army at 19, while continuing her studies at the University of Puerto Rico, because it “had more opportunities for women” than the Navy.
By 21, she got commissioned as an officer and had a bachelors degree in foreign languages – which she calls her gift. She eventually learned five languages and earned the nickname, “the Visa card,” among her fellow servicemen, because she often served as the translator for them.
Zoppi says moving up the military ladder and learning to acculturate to American culture — especially as a Latina — was not easy.
“A lot of time I was put down,” says the tough but light-spirited coronel who admits to having had trouble deciphering English for a long time when it was spoken too fast. That, however, was the impetus for her to work harder.
“The diversity wasn’t there at that time — so it was difficult and a lot of work. I was battling everybody — I didn’t go partying like everybody else so I could do better.”
Zoppi has seen her share of tough situations as she has advanced in the Army, but she clearly believes in her mission.
”One of the most impacting moments in my life was being in combat,” says Zoppi who has earned countless metals for her service, including the Bronze Star. “Although I believe in peace and diplomacy, sometimes the ultimate price we pay for democracy and freedom and national defense is war.”
The military first began accepting women into its ranks in the early 20th century. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of 2011, approximately 13 percent of active duty military are women.
Today, as a professor and colonel, Zoppi is very motherly and even hugs her soldiers. She says she really cares for them and often gives them advice.
“In order to become successful, you have to know yourself by going to school, taking advantage of career centers, taking personality tests, and then develop a plan — long term and short term,” she advises. Zoppi already planned her life to age 100. “I have created a map of things I want to do, but also remember to be flexible and adaptable and don’t forget to be spiritual and give back.”
The Puerto Rican colonel advises to continue seeking opportunities throughout one’s life.
“Don‘t just do what feels good, but contribute to the good of our Earth,” says Zoppi. “We have to consider each other.”
In order to do her part in giving back, Zoppi often offers her time as a keynote speaker, motivating women around the world. She says she enjoys helping other women, especially Latinas, to get ahead.
“I want to help other women see they can do it.”