By Sgt. Joshua Syberg
Indiana National Guard Headquarters
Just like every other day, the air was blistering leaving his home town of Brikama, The Gambia, or as they call it, Satey Ba, the “big city.”
Alhagie had only been to the Banjul International Airport a few times before.
Barely 16 miles away was Albreda, a French slave station from 1681 to 1857. During that time, 5,000 of Alhagie’s people were forced onto slave boats bound for the Americas each year.
On that day, however, he flew comfortably over the Atlantic Ocean 3,927 miles to New York City a free Gambian in search of the American dream.
Alhagie found himself blindsided by his new home’s size. After all, New York City has over four times the amount of habitants than his home country of The Gambia.
Luckily for Alhagie, he had two distinct advantages to others who had immigrated to the city. His primary language is English and his uncles had been in the United States since the 1970s.
“It was terrifying,” said Cpl. Alhagie Jaiteh, now a mechanic with the Indiana National Guard’s 638th Aviation Support Battalion. “It was a mix of excitement and a terrifying feeling. Just like any other small town boy who grew up anywhere in the United States trying to move to a big city like New York City. Arriving at JFK from a small town in Africa to a metropolitan city like New York was overwhelming.”
Once he settled into his new home he experienced new demands like budgeting for food and electricity. At 19, he began his new job as a dishwasher making $150 per week. Despite parents who made education a part of his personal identity, going to college wasn’t something he planned to pursue.
“As you start getting older, you learn about all these things,“ Jaiteh said. “You evolve from there, little by little you start to make plans. How can I be better?”
Despite the most common reason people Jaiteh’s age join the National Guard being funding for college, his reason was even more fundamental.
He knew he wanted to attend college, but he was also missing something — a sense of community.
“I thought maybe a policeman or a firefighter but then I came across a National Guard recruiter,” Jaiteh said. “If I live in the United States, I think about how can I be a part of this place? So for me, it was a no brainer.”
Basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina taught him a new way of looking at the world around him. Back then, Jaiteh felt that maybe he wasn’t being chosen for leadership roles because of the way he spoke or the color of his skin.
“Looking back at it, it wasn’t this system but my own unconscious bias that was holding me back my limited beliefs,” Jatieh said. “You feel like you don’t have any responsibility to assume leadership roles. Now my thought process is completely different.”
But according to Jaiteh, he also understands that bias and racism can be found anywhere he looks. He recalled one point walking home someone yelled from a passing vehicle, “hey, Kunta Kinte.” Kunta Kinte, who coincidentally was also from The Gambia, was the main protagonist portrayed by LeVar Burton on “Roots,” a miniseries from 1977 based on Alex Haley’s family history during the slavery in the United States.
“I was like, wait a minute,” Jaiteh said. “Kunta Kinte was a handsome fellow. So I must take that as a compliment.”
Despite the passerby’s attempt to hurt him, Jaiteh’s way of twisting racism continues to be one of his superpowers.
His other superpower — pure grit.
After completing basic training he set his sights on the computer science program at Purdue University.
Unfortunately, the way ahead isn’t always what we plan. Soon after arriving in Indiana, Jatieh learned that he would be deploying to the Middle East. Leaving his home once again for foreign lands.
To his unit’s surprise, his response — “lets go!”
“Cpl. Jaiteh is an asset to the Aviation Support Battalion,” said Lt. Col. David E. Eaton, 638th ASB commander. “His resolve and determination present a solid example to those around him. He embodies what is possible to accomplish in the Indiana Army National Guard.”
Using his powers of grit after his deployment, he hit the ground running back into his studies at Purdue.
“I study about 10 to 13 hours a day,” Jaiteh said. “I go get my food for the day, come upstairs to my dorm and crack coding problems. Even when I was deployed I took about half a semester worth of classes. I was just determined.”
Jaiteh’s dedication to his craft didn’t go unnoticed.
Now a junior at Purdue, he’s on his way to Microsoft.
Jaiteh, who now resides in West Lafayette, Indiana, applied for an internship with the tech giant and out of 25,000 applicants only roughly 2 percent are selected. He was one of them.
Jatieh father, who pushed him fiercely to be educated, couldn’t be happier.
“He gives in 100 percent,” said Bubacarr Jaiteh, Alhagie’s father who still lives in Brikama. “More than anything he does, he never plays the victim mindset and I’m always proud of him for that.”
Jaiteh takes the lessons he’s learned to push his fellow soldiers to pursue higher education and above all — become the best versions of themselves.