Shantell Gonzalez, 16, wears many hats as a junior at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School.
Shantell, described by her 14-year-old sister Nathalie Gonzalez as “interactive with everyone and very social,” serves in the highest position within her school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program: commanding officer, a position usually held by males.
Shantell, who loves being active, is also on her school’s softball team, color guard and marching band. She was also involved with Girl Scouts for seven years and has logged more than 3,000 hours of community service with the organization.
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“Shantell, since she was very little, showed us as a member of the family that she is a leader. We are very proud of her and proud that at 16, she is already thinking about the future,” said Juan Gonzalez, Shantell’s father.
As commanding officer, Shantell is in charge of organizing lesson plans and leading classroom instruction and drills. The JROTC program, Shantell notes, is not a military class. Students involved learn about science, oceans and leadership skills and participate in community service projects.
Despite her leadership experience, it wasn’t always easy for Shantell to be in charge. One of the biggest challenges she faced in JROTC was something she didn’t expect: her peers.
They don’t feel like they should be listening to someone their own age. In the beginning of the year, I was called a bunch of stuff.
“They don’t feel like they should be listening to someone their own age. In the beginning of the year, I was called a bunch of stuff. They’d say ‘Who do you think you are, telling us what to do?’ ” Shantell said.
But instead of letting those comments deter her from her goal of educating her peers, those comments catalyzed Shantell to keep working to earn her classmates’ respect.
“I interacted more with them. My friends helped get through to them by saying, ‘I know she’s not technically your boss, but that’s how the program works,’ ” she said.
Shantell was inspired to join the JROTC program because her brother, Christopher Gonzalez, 23, is currently a part of the military police stationed in Missouri and was previously stationed in Germany. Her parents, Juan and Ivonne Gonzalez, who are both from Colombia, have also inspired her to step up in the community.
She hopes to follow in her brother’s footsteps by joining the military, specifically the Marines; after her service, she wants to join the FBI. She also plans to go to college and mentioned Florida State University and Florida International University as possible choices.
Shantell was invited to attend the JROTC Leadership Academy last summer. She was the first female from her school to attend the academy, where she learned a wide range of leadership techniques. She described it as an “instructional boot camp.”
Because she has a passion for sharing her knowledge with her peers, Shantell is also involved with Health Information Project and Student Voices, an anti-bullying organization. Even though she is involved with all of those extracurricular activities, Shantell is also taking three Advanced Placement classes and a dual enrollment course.
When she leaves Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High, she hopes that her school will continue to appreciate the value of the JROTC program.
“I want to leave a legacy at that school because the program is just building up. I want the program to be built up because of not just me, but because of everyone who I’m working with,” she said.
The embedded video was produced by Nicole Barradas and Chloe Golan for the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs program.