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Heritage, persistence, resilience leads to success for AFMC Airman

  • Published
  • By Zion Dillahunt
  • Air Force Materiel Command

Mom, one day I’ll call and say that I can’t do this anymore. When I do, I need you to remind me that I can.

Just a few months into her Air Force career, Lt. Col. Lady Noreen S. Simmons called her mom, overwhelmed with being away from home from the first time while learning the culture and responsibility of her new Air Force career. Her mom, ever encouraging, took the call and reassured her, “You’ve prepared for this moment. It is not time to give up. You can do it, just be yourself, and remember that I’m always here for you.”

That phone call helped Simmons embrace being a first-generation Filipino woman serving in the U.S. Air Force. Today, Simmons is the Military Deputy for the Special Programs Division at Headquarters, Air Force Materiel Command.

Simmons’ parents immigrated to the United States at an early age. They settled in the suburbs of New York City, where Simmons, along with an older brother, were raised. Growing up, Simmons was exposed numerous diverse cultures of her New York Community. She thought it was like this in every community across the U.S.

The U.S. is the land of opportunity. It gives everyone a chance to create for themselves and their families. Looking for a way to create an impact as a first-generation Filipino and trying to afford college, Simmons seized her opportunity by joining the United States Air Force.

She studied Electrical Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and endured being a cross-town cadet commuting to New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, New Jersey for Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps.  She experienced a cadet corps that was as diverse as the New York. She was unaware of her differences until she commissioned and headed to her first assignment.

Simmons’ career has taken her across the U.S., with assignments at Tyndall AFB, Florida; Los Angeles AFB, California; MacDill AFB, Florida; Chantilly, Virginia; Maxwell AFB, Alabama; and Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

Her first assignment was working as an engineer in the 82d Aerial Targets Squadron at Tyndall AFB in Panama City, Florida. She enjoyed using her newly earned engineering degree to modify sub-scale and full-scale aerial targets, such as the QF-4 drone, to enable live-fire test and evaluation of air-to-air weapons over the Gulf of Mexico.

“That was an amazing job fresh out of college. We were helping test major weapon systems and ensuring they’d work as designed,” said Simmons. “At 22, it was eye opening because I did not think about having a job where I could have that kind of impact.”

It was at Tyndall that she quickly learned that the world is not like New York, the culture of an area is not always diverse, and being a Filipino woman engineer in the Air Force can be difficult.

Simmons had no idea she was the outlier among nearly 40 white male Airmen. It wasn’t until she noticed things like Airmen utilizing the female restrooms, making comments about having to change elsewhere due to her presence, and comments from neighbors that she recognized the difference.

“My neighbors across the street were super nice, but they would make sure to warn me about local culture norms that would make me think, ‘do people actually care about that stuff?’ Growing up, I didn't care about differences among others because New York was one big melting pot full of diversity,” said Simmons.

Following Florida, Simmons attended the Air Force Institute of Technology where she received a Masters of Science degree in Computer Engineering. 

However, prior to departing Tyndall, the Air Force was in the process of downsizing by nearly 20%. Like many junior officers, Simmons was worried about her Air Force future. Thankfully, the need for officers with advanced technical degrees helped keep Simmons in the Air Force.

Simmons was unaware of her differences and hurdles she was facing until she would hear from peers of  struggles and challenges from biases and discrimination.

 “Some junior females or minorities would say, ‘You know, those times when you go to a meeting, and you feel awkward because you're the only female?’ Simmons said she didn’t think she experienced that before, but after reflecting, she was able to highlight examples of similar experiences. Simmons believes that timing, luck, mentorship and good leadership are big reasons for her successes today.

 “I think the times that people did challenge me, I didn't view it as they were challenging me because I'm a female or minority. I viewed it as they challenged me because they thought I was ineffective in my job,” said Simmons. “It was my goal to prove them wrong.”

Simmons feels honored to have been given tremendous opportunities in the Air Force. She recently relinquished command of the Electronics Analysis Squadron at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center where she led a 124-member squadron responsible for creating all-source scientific and technical intelligence on capabilities, performance, limitations, and vulnerabilities of foreign electronic and cyber systems. Also, while at NASIC she served as the Engineering and Acquisition Officer Functional Area Manager. She advised 18 squadron leaders to manage 145 force modernization officers.

Motivation from her mentors and supervisors helped mold her into who she is today, as they encouraged her to lead and embrace who she is. The interesting part is that her most trusted mentors happen to be white males with stay-at-home wives.

“When I think about it now, I’m thankful for them to really understand me as a person because they didn't experience any of that,” said Simmons. “They've never been the only female or the only minority in the room. They saw something in me that I did not, and it means a lot to me that they encouraged me to take opportunities that I didn’t think I’d succeed in.”

Her Filipino culture was something that she kept close. Luckily, it was a mentor that help her recognize the importance of her culture, and how she integrates her culture in the workplace.

“I thought being in the Air Force meant I had fit this mold of what we expect of an Air Force officer by acting certain ways.” said Simmons. “To me, I thought that meant I couldn’t be Filipina.”

In Filipino culture, it is normal to celebrate events with food. These meals are a time for celebration, camaraderie, and togetherness. Simmons’ mentor explained that she was the reason their office celebrates frequently, as Simmons consistently finds ways to celebrate with her team.

“If I bring you food, it makes you happy, but it also makes me happy. Food is a huge part of the culture of the Philippines. It is typically thought to be disrespectful if you ever go to a Filipino household and say you aren’t hungry when offered food,” said Simmons.

Another aspect of being Filipino is family.

There was a point in Simmons career that she did not know if she could have a family and remain in the Air Force. In her earlier years she noticed many high-ranking females were single, divorced, or did not have children.

Luckily, as time progressed, she began noticing more Airmen with families. This helped her turn her thoughts in to realities, and she married a fellow Airman and engineer with whom they have four young boys.

Simmons juggles many tasks by being an Airman, a mother, a wife, a female engineer and a representative of the Filipino culture. Through it all, she remains resilient and represents excellence in the Air Force.

“Don't be afraid to infuse some of your cultural things within your team. It’s those differences that bring people together,” said Simmons. “Share the aspects of your culture that make you who you are. These things help make our Air Force better.”

At Air Force Materiel Command, we celebrate all walks of life as we strengthen our team. Individuals like Simmons embody the type of groundbreaking individuals needed lead the world’s greatest Air Force.