The assignment seemed simple enough. Get a piece of paper and write down your dream job.
“I wrote down aviation,” says Shelby Sykes, an O’Neill Public Safety Management major.
In fall 2022, Sykes was in Stacy Lozer’s Career Development class. As the students worked on their latest assignment, Lozer told them to also write down potential barriers and other careers connected to their dream job.
With each section Sykes drew, he was creating a map of how to arrive at his career goal.
Aviation wasn’t the original plan when he started at O’Neill in 2019. He wanted to work somewhere like the FBI or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Then, his father—who had been in the military before shifting to a job in corrections—suggested he try the ROTC.
“For most of the big federal places, a military background is a resume-booster,” he says. “So, I decided to try it out.”
What started as one semester with ROTC stretched into a full year and then three more years. Sykes enjoyed being part of the group and did well in his assignments. In fact, he did so well he received a three-year ROTC scholarship. But the experience also opened his mind to a new career path, one starting in the military.
“We had to submit a preference list for what area we wanted to pursue—and I was fully banking on aviation,” Sykes admits. “I put all my eggs in that basket. I’m competitive so I knew I could do it and I wasn’t going to settle for anything else.”
But he was competing against thousands of other ROTC cadets nationwide for assignments. As he kept progressing through the program, he was getting closer and closer to his goal.
As he sat in Lozer’s class that day, he wrote down two main obstacles still in his way: his eye exam and flight test. But he also began to think about what else he could do with his experience.
“Aviation opens up a ton of different opportunities for when I get out of the military,” he says.
One of those is something he sees every day. Sykes lives on Michigan Street in downtown Indianapolis, right in the flight path for IU Health Methodist Hospital.
“For the past four years, I’ve seen LifeLine flying in and out every day,” he says. “When I get out of the military, I would love to fly for a hospital or do something similar.”
That became one of the connected career options on his map, as did a potential future in commercial aviation.
“When I get out, the options are limitless,” he says with a smile.
After Sykes finished Lozer’s class, he kept his career map. Several months later, he’s now passed his eye exam, his flight test, and has been assigned to Fort Rucker, Alabama, following commencement in May. That’s where he’ll spend the next 18 months in flight school with the U.S. Army.
“When I made that map, I didn’t know I would be selected for aviation,” he says. “So, now, when I look back at it, it solidifies that aviation is something I can do. That makes me want to work even harder on everything else I had listed on my map because now I know I can do it. Half of my original circle is already checked off.”
Sykes says the map he made in class that day has become a checklist for his future.
“I’m a big believer in being able to see what you want,” he explains. “The career map was a great exercise to help us see on paper what we wanted to do and how we could get there. It also helped us understand if our plan doesn’t go that way, it’s not the end. We can always add or take off whatever we want as time goes on.”
Sykes’ map will continue to change as he checks off more boxes. When he finishes flight school, he’ll be assigned to active duty for the next 10 years. After that, he’ll decide which path he wants to follow: continue in the military or pursue a civilian career. Either way, he knows he has the knowledge, experience, and tools to keep up with his evolving map and future.
“Honestly, my career possibilities are going to be endless,” he says.