Now Chief of the Diversity and Inclusion Division, Office of the Air Force Surgeon General, Col. Felicia Burks has achieved a life and career she said would not have been possible without the support of leaders, mentors, friends, family, faith and a college degree from Troy University.
“I think about legacy building,” she said. “I stand on my family’s shoulders, and they paved the way for me to have the opportunities I have today. They paved the way for me, and now it’s my turn to break down barriers.”
That’s why she created a $25,000 endowed scholarship entitled The Baldwin-Kent-Shepherd-Toles-Felicia L. Burks Endowment Scholarship. It’s a mouthful, but Burks wanted to represent her family with the gift.
“One of the things I know for sure is that my family is integral to my success, and all of them had some impact on my development,” she said. “This is a way to connect them all and provide an opportunity for youth and the next generation.”
A Grady, Alabama, native who grew up in the Helicon community, Burks is sensitive to opportunities and to the creation of opportunities.
“Opportunities for opened doors are often a result of bridge builders, especially for those disadvantaged as a result of socioeconomic class. I know the effects of poverty; I understand the benefits of an education, and I believe my life’s calling is connected to helping others succeed,” she said. “As a first-generation college student and alumna of Troy University, I am grateful for the education I gained from TROY, which has been a catalyst to lead me to many opportunities simply because the school I love granted me conditional admission.”
“I always knew I’d go to college, although my plan to get there was not clearly defined,” she said.
Then a neighbor, Tonya Foster Swinson, got engaged in the process, serving as a “ramp” to get Burks into college.
“Once I became a full-time student at Troy University, an Army ROTC instructor recruited me into Army ROTC and the rest is part of my history,” she said. “I’m extremely grateful for divine intervention which has led me on an amazing journey. TROY is certainly key to my success.”
That said, Burks wasn’t a typical college student. She faced some challenges others did not along her way to earning her degrees, a bachelor’s of science in vocational rehabilitation with a military science minor (1999) and a master’s degree in management with an emphasis in health care administration (2002). Her mother had health issues, and she cared for a younger brother. Burks stepped in to help take care of the underprivileged family as much as she could. All the while, she tried to figure out “what ‘right’ looked like” for a college student.
“I thank God I was able to persevere and make it through. I learned to maximize my schedule, learned how to work and study, and how to use the resources that were available to me,” she said. “That first year was not easy, but by my advanced classes, I had a rhythm and a good support network.”
She was able to learn to navigate through a college career despite adversities and got involved on campus.
She joined Alpha Phi Omega, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., engaged in intramural sports and joined Army ROTC. She also got connected with a Veterans Administration work-study job working with University Records. It was there she met Jeanell Sikes.
“Although I wasn’t in Ms. Jeanell’s academic classroom, I learned a lot from her. She modeled excellence and shared so much love with us all,” she said.
Under Sikes’ supervision, Burks was surrounded by other college students who were in the Reserves or the National Guard.
“Connecting with them empowered me with the belief that I could accomplish my goals. Even though I had to take remedial math, I still graduated within four years, learned college life and how to navigate it and honed my study skills so that I could focus on accomplishing my goals,” she said.
Besides Sykes’ influence, Burks pointed to several others instrumental to her academic success.
“My math teacher was an adjunct professor but taught math better than anyone I had ever known, and my ROTC instructors really invested time in our growth and development,” she said. “They really connected with us and ensured we would be successful.”
She had enlisted in the Army Reserves, influenced by an uncle who was in the Army Reserves, although he didn’t know he influenced her decision at the time.
“When I told him, he said ‘I wish you would have talked to me first,’” she said with a chuckle. “He advised me on the opportunities within the Air Force.”
“He modeled excellence, and I wanted to make a difference, too,” she added.
Since then, she’s been a military officer for a total of 21 years, commissioning in the Army after graduating from TROY. She served six years in the Army and then commissioned in the Air Force, where she’s been a Medical Service Corps Officer and Healthcare Administrator for 15 years. She’s served in multiple positions of leadership, including command. In August 2020, she became the inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Chief, executing the Air Force Surgeon General’s vision to cultivate a culture of diversity and inclusion.
Burks admits the newest assignment is unique, requiring building a structure and laying in resources to execute the vision. Then again, facing unique challenges is firmly in her wheelhouse and is part of the reason she dedicated herself to building an endowed scholarship for TROY students.
She’s managed to overcome obstacles of family and socio-economic conditions, finding her way through college and even breast cancer while stationed in Alaska, far from her family’s support.
“When faced with anything, we can either take fight or take flight,” she said. That concept comes through loud and clear in her message to future TROY students who will receive financial support through her gift.
“Dream big and believe in yourself,” she wants students to know. “You have everything you need in you and resources around you to help you succeed. Focus on strong study habits. Capitalize on the experience. Seek out mentors. Ask a lot of questions. Remain present in the NOW. Learn from every encounter. The college journey leads to a rewarding professional career,” she said.