Learning the language

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Marnee A. C. Losurdo
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

Moving can be a difficult experience for a child—leaving behind friends and family and starting over somewhere else isn’t easy … just ask Airman Zuri Vargas.

At age 11, the 41st Aerial Port Squadron commander support staff personnel specialist, moved to Mississippi with her family from her native country, the Dominican Republic, in 2015.

“Saying goodbye was difficult; everything was difficult,” said Vargas, whose mother, Gertrudis Mister, married an American, Ronderick Mister, who lived in the Magnolia state. Vargas’ brother stayed in her native country with their family there, but she came here with her sister, and gained two sisters, a step sister and two step brothers.

She had to adjust to a new culture and family, and she had a language barrier.

“I came here and the only (English) words I knew were ‘hi,’ ‘hello,’ ‘how are you,’ good morning’ and ‘good night,’” she said. “Not knowing English; how to speak, read or write it was hard.”

Vargas, who was an A student in the Dominican Republic, started her seventh grade year with a huge learning curve with learning a new language and adapting to a different culture.

“I had to learn everything,” she said, adding that her “A” average dropped to a “C” average.

English can be a challenge to learn, especially with vocabulary words having multiple meanings and all the baffling spelling and rules. But, Vargas persevered.

“During the last few months of seventh grade I started to learn English, and was better at writing, reading and speaking it, so in 8th grade everything started to get better,” said Vargas, who describes herself as a very shy person which made it a challenge for her to reach out and make friends, but she had a few.

In high school, she was assigned to an ELA Class, a comprehensive English and Language Arts class that focuses on reading, writing, grammar, spelling and other aspects of communication. There were students from other countries such as Mexico, Africa and the Middle East.

“That class helped me a lot and Ms. Little, the teacher, became my favorite. She taught me all four years of high school, she was always there for me,” she said, adding that it was nice to interact with other people in her situation. “That whole class became my family. If you had a bad day, and you got to that class, it was a safe place, my safe place.”

While Vargas was working her way through Terry High School, she said she was thinking about her future … one that involved the Armed Forces.

“Since I was little I always wanted to be in the military; I just didn’t know what branch,” she said. “I remember sitting in the living room with my grandma (in the Dominican Republic) watching movies about people in the military and Special Forces action movies. It always caught my attention.”

When she was in the 8th grade, she said she told her mother she wanted to join the military. The answer was no. She waited and brought the topic up a year later; the answer was no again. She waited, and mentioned it again in 11th grade. Her mother’s answer was still no, but this time she had her step father on her side as he saw the benefits of service. So she kept mentioning the topic to her mother.

“I turned 17 and a half, which you can join at that age, but you need your parent’s signature,” she said.

Her mother finally consented, but had one request; that her daughter serve close to home to help her out with the family while her mother worked her way through school. Her mother was a hair dresser in the Dominican Republic but since her certificates of training did not transfer to America, Vargas said her mother had to take the American version of these courses to get qualified to style hair here.

“The only way to serve in the military and stay close to home was to join the Reserve,” said Vargas. “So, I joined the Air Force Reserve on Feb. 9, 2021.”

Since that day, Vargas has completed basic training, the personnel course, and is now working her way through her upgrade training as a personnel specialist. As a personnel specialist, her job is similar to a human resources manager at a civilian company, assisting fellow Airmen with a wide array of administrative functions.

“Airman Vargas has only been with us a short amount of time, but she is already an integral part of the 41st APS team,” said Lt. Col. Stephanie Lee, 41st APS commander. “She is part of a two-person team supporting more than 100 Airmen managing various programs such as in- and out-processing, absentee rosters, promotion and eligibility, and separations and discharges. She is a very quick learner who consistently seeks out additional responsibilities. We are thrilled to have her on board and look forward to supporting her continued development.”

“I enjoy it,” said Vargas. “I was on orders for two months for my upgrade training. I loved being here every day.”

Now that her orders for ‘seasoning’ training are complete, in civilian life, Vargas is a manager at Pizza Hut working 40-50 hours a week, in addition to her Reserve duty.

At the ripe age of 18, Vargas has worked her way through some unique challenges, but she’s still got big goals. Once she completes the rest of her upgrade training later this year, she said she plans to go to college and major in biochemistry and eventually become a pediatrician.

Life isn’t always easy, so Vargas’s advice to others who experience the difficulties that come with life changes, such as learning a new way of life and language, is to keep pressing on.

“It’s hard but if you feel behind like I did, just push forward because you get used to it and when you learn it, it’s the best feeling ever.”