For young African American men, incarceration or death is statistically a more probable outcome than a college education. Only 8 percent graduate from college while they are 40 percent of the prison population.
Born in San Francisco but raised in Oakland his entire life, Captain Jerry Varnado knew the obstacles he was up against when he made a commitment to himself that he would not become another statistic.
Graduating from Skyline High School in 2003 he believed he was going on to attend a regular college or university. He never had interest in the military. While at a college fair, however, he learned about the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and decided this was where he could develop his leadership potential.
Ultimately, Varnado was accepted at West Point, becoming was the first African American in over 25 years to be accepted in the academy from the Oakland Unified School District.
“I could not understand why I got so much praise when I was accepted, but after taking a look around, I realized it was because every other day a young male, ages 18-25, was being shot and killed in Oakland,” said Varnado. “People expect this from us, and when we live up to those expectations it sets us back.”
Varnado readily admits that it was not easy for him to adjust to life at West Point. In high school, he was used to being “the man,” but at the academy his mindset had to change. West Point constantly challenged him, and he had to step up to the plate.
When people learned that he was from Oakland, some would turn their noses up, but he worked and studied harder than others, never willing to accept anything but his best.
Varnado graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Defense Artillery Branch. After completing the training course, he deployed to South Korea where he spent 13 months. While in Korea, he bought a piano and taught himself to play.
He went next to Fort Hood where he applied to be part of the West Point Outreach Team. Desiring to help young people develop their leadership potential in the same way that he had, he began serving as one of five U.S. army officers who were selected for the 2010-2011 school year to increase the numbers of under-represented minorities at West Point.
“Everything I have ever done was to come back and motivate people, because we as a people do not do that enough,” he said. “ I tell everyone not to settle for mediocrity. This job allows me to help young African Americans with the education process and getting accepted into school.”
Varnado has been awarded numerous military decorations including the Korean Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and the Overseas Service Ribbon. He is also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated.
He says that his experiences are helping him to prepare to one day accomplish his long-term goal – to become the mayor of Oakland. .
“When people see their leader they should believe,” said Varnado. “I am doing what I do because I care and because I just have to give back to the people of Oakland.”