It never dawned on Col. Cotina Jenkins Sellers of how important it is to be the first African-American from Vaiden to become a colonel in the United States Air Force until her niece, Nakyla, did a speech about her during a black history month service.
“I really didn’t think about it until my family and friends told me how big of a deal it was. I’ve just been myself,” she said. “I stayed true to who I am, I did my job, and I got promoted. When Nakyla did the speech about me being the first African American from Vaiden to be promoted to colonel in the Air Force, I realized it’s kind of a big deal.”
Although Sellers said she was just being Cotina, she knew it was an amazing achievement.
“I’ve never been one to brag or assume that the next rank would be mine. When I found out I had made the colonel’s list, I put a post out [on Facebook] saying something about how the Air Force saw fit to promote a ‘lil’ country girl from Vaiden to colonel. Seeing the comments and how proud so many people were, people who I didn’t even know, really resonated with me.”
It was almost as if it was her “a-ha” moment, like, she had been a trendsetter and opened a new door that wasn’t opened before for children in Vaiden who may have the same interest. That was somewhat of a theme in Sellers life. She kicked down doors for herself.
“Although I didn’t have a lot of family members in the military, I was always interested in serving,” she said.
Determined to accomplish her dream of serving our country, Sellers formulated a plan to get there. After having to wave technical school with the Army Reserve, she still never let her dream die.
During her senior year in high school, she enlisted in the Army Reserve. But, simultaneously, she received a scholarship to Mississippi Valley State University.
“I had to accept the scholarship in the fall,” Sellers said. “But, going through basic and technical school consecutively during the summer before college would begin, I would not have returned home until the spring, so I asked for an academic waiver.”
After being granted the waiver to be released from the Army Reserve, she accepted her scholarship.
“When I got to Valley, I was still interested in serving,” she said.
After one conversation with the Air Force recruiter on campus, she joined and has been in since.
After graduating from Valley, she commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force. Sellers said she began her journey as a maintenance officer and later became a personnel officer.
“It was a lot of hard work, late nights, and dedication to get the mission done. I attribute much of my success in the military to the great people that I’ve worked alongside. I love people and know that if you take care of people, they will take care of the mission. Additionally, whenever educational opportunities were presented, I took them. I have been awarded three masters degrees since graduating from Valley and all while being in the Air Force. Whatever training I needed to do my job better, I signed up for it,” she said.
Twenty-two years later, Sellers is still excelling in the Air Force by being herself and taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. Currently stationed at Fort Belvoir, Sellers lives in Springfield, Virginia, with her husband, Michael, while her two sons, Derrick Jenkins and Kason Sellers, attend college in North and South Carolina.
She said when she told her parents, Sylvester and Mary Fleming of Vaiden, she wanted to enlist, they were very supportive.
“They have always been very supportive of me. Whatever I’ve wanted to do, they’ve never talked me out it, except for buying a motorcycle a couple of years ago,” Sellers laughed.
Sellers has been deployed three times. In 2002, she was deployed to Masirah Island, Oman; from late 2009 to early 2010, she was deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and from May 2013 until June 2014, she was deployed to Kuwait
She said if she could give advice to someone wanting to follow in her footsteps, she would tell them the first thing they need to do is to make a decision on what they want to do in life.
“You have to think further than five minutes in front of you,” Sellers said. She said a person should research what it is they want to do, work towards it, and realize it may not happen overnight. However, if they keep pushing they’ll get there.
“The first thing they need to do is seriously consider the education or training that they’ll need in the future,” she said. “For example, if you want to be a teacher, you have to go to school for that, you need a degree to teach. So, if you’re a high school student that wants to be a teacher, tell yourself now in high school ‘Maybe I need to get good grades to put myself in a position where colleges will accept me.’ The sooner you know what you want to do in life, the sooner you can start achieving those goals.”
She said every job will require you to get some type of education, not just those seeking college.
“My best friend is a successful hairstylist. And, she goes back to school regularly to learn new styles and new techniques to keep up with the current trends and to get better with her craft,” she said. “My dad has worked construction for many years and just last month he was sitting in a classroom learning new ways to operate machinery. The point here is, improving your skills in whatever you do is so very important and should not be taken for granted.”
She said the biggest thing is for a person not to feel that because they’re from a small town like Vaiden that they can’t do whatever they set out to do.
“I will admit that stepping out of your comfort zone from a place where everybody knows your name into a world that has so much to offer, can be quite intimidating. But just know that you are just as competitive and have just as much to offer as anyone else. Don’t think ‘I’m just a small fish in a big pond from a small town.’ You bring something unique to the team, the best teams are diverse and have diversity of thought. Don’t let anyone tell you that small town folks don’t get a seat at the table or that we can’t dream BIG!”