ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam --
By federal law, only about one percent of the Air Force's active duty enlisted force may hold the rank of chief master sergeant.
Achieving the rank takes experience, dedication and marks the pinnacle of any enlisted service member's career.
Additionally, senior enlisted leaders need a completed Community College of the Air Force degree, a two-year technical degree, to advance into this final echelon of enlisted leadership.
For Chief Master Sgt. Marvin Parker, being a leader meant more than simply checking the minimum requirements.
Since 2014, the 36th Mission Support Group superintendent has held a doctorate in business administration, summa cum laude, specializing in global operations of supply chain management -- making him part of only a handful of chief master sergeants to hold a PhD.
At a recent CCAF graduation, Parker took the stage as a commencement speaker wearing the full academic regalia of a doctorate recipient. While drawing inquisitive looks and curious smiles from the crowd, the chief displayed the unusual ensemble with knowing purpose -- after all, it was seeing a PhD graduate in the crowd of a CCAF graduation years ago that sparked his own interest in pursuing the advanced degree.
"I remember noticing his cap and gown were different than any other graduate," he recalled with a smile. "I told one of my Airmen, 'I've got to get me one of those outfits.’"
Parker kept his word. Years later, he donned the trappings of cap and gown in the hope to inspire others.
"When I was asked to speak at the graduation, I knew exactly what to do," he said. "I wanted the Airmen to see there was something more than the CCAF. There is something more than even a bachelor's or master's degree -- something more they could strive to achieve."
While he is an academic role model today, Parker acknowledged he did not start his academic career with as much speed. In 1995, he was a staff sergeant with 16 of 64 credit hours completed toward his degree in transportation and business management.
When the young NCO became a first-line supervisor, he faced his first official feedback session with his subordinate, an airman 1st class. Aiming to do right by his Airman, he wanted to stress the importance of education and how to achieve it. However, Parker said he was not as well prepared as he initially thought.
The airman 1st class surprised the budding supervisor with having completed 59 credit hours toward the very same degree, as well as having utilized the Defense Activity for Non-traditional Education Support and the College-Level Examination Program tests toward his transcript.
"Although rare, I was at a loss for words, because at that moment I realized I was in no position to mentor, guide or lead this [airman] on how to best complete his educational journey," Parker recalled. "Shortly after the session, I went back to my desk, reflected what had just happened and made a vow to never put myself in that situation again. The very next day, I met with a base education counselor, got enrolled in weekend classes at the local community college, and the rest is history."
This motivation lasted Parker for more than two decades, carried him to complete two CCAF degrees, a bachelor's and a master's degree in logistics management and leadership, respectively.
"My educational journey has taken more than 20 years, and I continue to seek ways to demonstrate the learning path is not a sprint but a lifelong journey," he said. "The path has been filled with examinations, quizzes, papers and assignments [and] wedged between four deployments, five temporary duty assignments, six job rotations, four promotions, four professional military education courses and seven permanent changes of station."
Parker said he heavily relied on tuition assistance and testing support provided by education centers around the Air Force.
"Programs such as Tuition Assistance, Montgomery GI Bill and the 9/11 GI Bill were all instrumental in paying for my education," he said. "If it were not for the dedicated professionals operating at the many training and education centers across the globe, many of our Airmen would be lost in the maze of degree mills, loan debts, broken financial aid agreements and degrees that fail to contribute to the furtherance of the Air Force's mission."
But, institutional support meant more than tuition assistance. Parker said throughout his academic career, he relied on support from teammates and family alike.
"Remaining true to my faith, respecting friendships developed at the many bases I have been assigned and having an incredible wife to take care of the home-front are the primary ways I have maintained the delicate balance," he said. "There were a lot of supporters responsible for driving my education successes and for each of them I am truly honored and humbled. Commanders, chiefs, shirts, supervisors, co-workers, professors, cohorts and my family members have all played key roles in my success."
With busy days at the flightline, shop or office many Airmen may be unsure how to approach education or fit it into a busy day. However according to Parker, this is no excuse to waste time, and he recommends having a long-term education plan to keep on track.
"Start with the local training and education office to determine educational goals," he added. "Build a team of support to include supervisors and co-workers. I assert that work-life balance will pose different challenges for every individual; however, the members must start their journeys with a solid plan. Having an education plan allows life to happen without derailing the education train."
With recent force management actions and a changing enlisted evaluation system, Parker acknowledged Airmen are challenged in new ways to contribute to the team and their self-improvement.
"The pace of change is faster than it's ever been, and education is and will remain an essential feature of the Air Force's new normal," Parker said. "My education has allowed me a seat at the table to speak on behalf of our enlisted corps. It helps me maintain and enhance the knowledge and skills to keep pace with the current standards in the career field and across the service."
While focusing on enlisted education programs assists in the advancement of Airmen's careers and can facilitate movement into new positions to lead, manage, influence, coach and mentor, Parker said education also ensures active duty enlisted professionals remain aware of the changing trends and directions within the profession of arms.
"Our enlisted Airmen must remain nimble-footed and imaginative to prevent the currency of the enlisted members' knowledge from becoming outdated or irrelevant," he cautioned. "An educated enlisted corps leads to increased public confidence in our enlisted force and blending technical school training with industry-based skill sets and professional certifications benefits the wing though molding a more diverse and qualified enlisted corps, which is critically needed to maintain our national defense."
Today, as in 1995, Parker said what keeps him motivated is the daily opportunity to lead by example and inspire Airmen along the way.
"Going above and beyond is not just a state of mind or the buzz phrase of the enlisted Airmen's day, but a call for action and is part of the enlisted Airmen's DNA," Parker said. "So, why would we not go above and beyond just the minimum? Continuing one's education may stem from an interest in lifelong learning or may be based on a desire to maintain and improve the professional competence within both the career field and the Air Force as an enterprise.
"No matter what the ultimate reason for pursuing education, Airmen should rest assured they have the support of their leadership," he continued. "As leaders we owe it to our Airmen to help them achieve their greatest education potentials."