Growing up in Atlanta, Janice Poe has lived her entire life in the city and always wanted to go to college. She thought joining the army would be the best way to pay and was lucky enough to get into West Point. She thrived there for two years before realizing, just in time, that it wasn’t the best fit for her as she wanted to pursue higher education in a medical field. However, the long and rigid service commitment that follows a West Point education would not guarantee a chance to leave right away.
“I thought: are you crazy? Are you really going to leave because you don’t want to commit? ” she says. “Now I realize it was the best decision I made in my life.”
Just 10 days after leaving West Point, Poe enlisted in the Army National Guard. This came with greater flexibility, and combined with a Minuteman scholarship, her tuition would be covered. Her plan was to go back to school, and she didn’t expect to be called right away. That’s when COVID hit and Poe found herself with a unit in rural Georgia on the front lines of pandemic relief.
First, she staffed a warehouse with consolidated medical supplies, helping to manage distributions of face masks, hand sanitizer and other protective gear. After only three months, she got a management position. She started leading a project to bring food to children learning at home as schools transitioned to remote learning. Poe’s team helped prepare and count meals, pack them on buses and distribute them to areas of need.
“We had the same families coming in every day, and I realized school was the only time these kids could have a meal,” says Poe. “It was really humiliating to do something like that.”
When she completed this assignment, she was excited to head to Syracuse University. She found the liaison and the process very helpful, especially since her situation was complicated.
“I really felt they wanted what was best for me,” she says. “They were so helpful and inviting, I never felt like I didn’t belong here.”
She completed an interstate transfer from Georgia, where she served with the 221st Military Intelligence Expeditionary Battalion, to New York City to join the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Headquarters. She chose the unit closest to Syracuse University, which happens to be an infantry unit, and very different from what she did in Georgia.
Even after her successful stint at West Point, she had reservations about moving to an infantry unit. She had nothing to fear. Poe did such a good job during a two-week mock combat exercise that her unit surprised her with her first Army Medal of Honor. She also surprised them, as they had no idea of her previous experience as a cadet.
“I was so nervous about coming to this unit, and they made me so much better,” she says. “They have been the most amazing unit. I love them so much.”
As a cadet in the Concurrent Membership Program, Poe discovered student life with the Syracuse ROTC Battalion and continued to serve in the Guard. She is a chemistry major and plans to attend physician assistant school after graduating in December. Her volunteer work at Syracuse University’s COVID Testing Center is well connected to her pandemic experience in Georgia and helping her with the clinical hours she needs.
Through her studies at Syracuse, Poe also began contributing to health care research in marginalized communities, which led her to work with Joseph Chaiken, a professor of chemistry. They are testing a device that can be placed on a person’s finger and test blood without using needles. It helps focus some research on differences in skin tone and pigments. His review study involves testing the device with many people to see if it should accommodate different skin tones.
“As soon as he started talking about it, I thought it was so cool and I could do something about it to make a difference,” she says.
Poe is grateful that she made that seemingly crazy decision to leave West Point when she did.
“Could I do it? Absolutely, without a doubt. Would I have been happy? Absolutely not. I would have stayed, but that wouldn’t have made me as happy as I am now. I am able to learn as a soldier and grow as a leader while pursuing my interests,” Poe says. “The ultimate goal for me is to have a balance between time spent in service and dedicating my time to research and my career.”