There is a Path...You Just Have to Start Walking

  • Published
  • By Corey Robertson
  • Air Force Sustainment Center Public Affairs

Almost 15 years ago, Tonya Perkins was living in Houston broke, homeless, sleeping in her vehicle and struggling to find a way to take care of her young son. Tonya knew she had to make a change, so she called her brother in Oklahoma to come pick her and her son up and take them back home. Cut to present day and Tonya is taking classes to obtain a master’s degree in forensic engineering.

A proud citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Tonya grew up on an Indian Reservation outside of Lawton, Okla., and her family later moved to Midwest City where she graduated high school. After graduating, Tonya never really thought about continuing her education, until returning home. Tonya heard about Metro Technology Center or Metro Tech and decided to visit the campus and find out what they had to offer.

“I borrowed my brother’s car and five dollars to go to Metro Tech and take the Airframe Maintenance test. The test cost more than five dollars, but the staff at Metro Tech helped me out because they saw something in me. Eighteen months later I graduated, and now I look back and see how much Metro Tech helped me out,” said Perkins.

Tonya heard about an internship program offered at Tinker Air Force Base. The internship allowed for students to work part-time while still going to school. This internship offered Tonya a work-life balance that allowed her to spend time at home and focus on her studies.

“The freedom to work and go to school allowed me more time with kids and to study. Tinker realizes that allowing family time makes for a more well-rounded employee, they understand family is just as important as the mission,” said Perkins.

Tonya has faced many obstacles on her journey to where she is now, but one constant has been her determination to never give up and to never stop achieving more. Tonya received her certification in Airframe and Power Plant Maintenance from Metro Technology Center, associate degree in applied science from Air University, a Bachelor of Arts from Michigan State and a Certificate of Mastery in Aviation Maintenance from Oklahoma City Community College. 

For the past 13 years as Tonya worked in various positions at Tinker Air Force Base, from the F100 Engine Line to the KC-135, she continued to learn, grow and advance in her career. Her career in aircraft maintenance allows her to do what she loves most, solve problems.

“When I was a mechanic, I found myself asking how I can improve this process and how I can help make those changes. I love to talk to mechanics and help them solve issues in real time. This job takes time, our mechanics have to follow processes and steps and to change the process can be frustrating as we have to ensure we are doing it safely and to get them out of the normal routine. The challenge is part of the excitement of solving problems, even identifying risk can help the workforce,” said Perkins.

Dennis D’Angelo, executive director of the Air Force Sustainment Center, had the opportunity to hear Tonya speak at Metro Tech and hear about her journey and career path. Not having met Tonya before this, he was amazed at her resilience and determination.

“Tonya's journey exemplifies two things regarding our workforce mentality; first, if you are interested there are great opportunities to advance yourself through Air Force and multiple sponsored programs. The Air Force offers many educational opportunities that you may not find elsewhere in the commercial sector. Secondly, the Air Force Sustainment Center is focused on helping our people advance in their areas of expertise or to help them in career development through advance education. We want more people to take advantage of these career path opportunities in the future. We are proud of what Tonya has accomplished using the opportunities the Air Force affords all workers as it reflects that when our people succeed, the whole Air Force succeeds.” 

In her current position as a Management and Process Analyst, Tonya must mentor and guide teams to improve their shop processes. She prides herself on openly communicating with all levels of the workforce and listening to their ideas for innovation. When asked about the most rewarding thing about her job Perkins said, “Whenever everyone accomplishes a task together and seeing how proud they are of the work they have done is very rewarding. Seeing them recognized in front of leadership is the ultimate payoff. It is definitely worth the time, sweat and tears.”

Tonya continues to find ways to improve her craft and solve complex maintenance issues that can increase aircraft sustainment efforts.

“I want to know how we can make these airframes better. We work on legacy systems that are becoming harder to repair and maintain. I want to find how we can make the metal stronger, or machines better to produce parts.  If we can make a stronger part or piece this allows the mechanics more time to solve problems. I am interested in cryogenics and how it can help prolong metal parts and pieces,” said Perkins.

Tonya spends much of her free time providing mentorship to students at Metro Tech. She is looking forward to expanding her mentorship opportunities to high school and junior high student. She wants to ensure that any student out there who is looking for a challenging and rewarding career has the mindset to accomplish anything they set their minds on.

“If you haven’t applied you are already saying no; keep applying and don’t stop at just one application. Apply for anything you feel you can make a difference in. You don’t have to be a mechanic, there are multiple jobs and positions across Tinker and there is literally a job for everyone,” said Perkins.

When asked about any advice she would give to students looking for a career or anyone looking to make a change in their life, Tonya said, “It doesn’t matter where you are in life, find your passion, follow it, and make improvements. My passion was to improve and I knew I could do better and I feel I have. Metro Tech made me realize I have so many skills inside of me, I just needed to find the right program to bring that out. You really can do anything you set your mind to. Don’t get discouraged, be a thinker and be proactive. There is a path, you just have to start walking.”

To find out more about starting a career at the Air Force Sustainment Center or applying for an internship click here.