NEA Ambassador Terin Philip shares her advice for college students with eczema and the added challenge of Covid-19
Published On: Mar 10, 2021
Last Updated On: Nov 18, 2021
Alex Dawkins had a dream of serving her country. There was only one catch: she was born with severe atopic dermatitis (AD) and had lived with it all her life. Still, with a medical waiver from her dermatologist in hand, she had no reason to expect that having eczema would slow her down in trying to enlist in the American armed forces — until it did.
“I had met with several recruiters,” Alex said, “and one of the superior officers made it seem that I could potentially put myself and others in harm’s way if I had a reaction in battle, even though that wasn’t true.”
Even with her eczema under control, it was clear to Alex that not everyone she met with fully understood her condition; it was not contagious, it was not life-threatening and it would not put anyone else at risk. Having eczema – even under control – made the process of enlisting more complicated, more time-consuming. And for some people, it would have been too much to overcome.
The daughter of a determined single mother, Alex was not someone who would give up easily. Her mother had raised her, along with her two sisters, to work hard and to follow their dreams. Alex’s mother had always made sure that Alex saw the right kind of doctors, specialists with knowledge about eczema – and by high school she had learned to manage and control her flares.
“I cut out all the negatives,” she said. “I surrounded myself with positivity. I started to write poetry. I put everything down on paper. And I surround myself with people who believe in me.”
By the time she started to dream of serving her country, she knew how to manage her condition. She also had two important family members who believed in her. Alex’s older brother and his wife were both actively serving in the United States Air Force.
“My brother’s wife was one of my biggest role models,” she said. “I saw her life, and my brother’s life, and I thought: that is cool, that looks fun, I could travel — I could make a difference.”
During her senior of high school, Alex started talking with different recruiters from the Air Force. She signed up for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery examination, known as the ASVAB exam. “The Air Force was my first choice,” she said, “because that was where my family was serving.” In order to enlist, she would need to pass the specific sections of the test that mattered most to the U.S. Air Force: mathematics, electronics, mechanical processes. But it wasn’t so easy.
“I had to take the test four times,” she said, laughing. “My brother only had to take it once. And you know, it was frustrating. I took time off. I started nursing school. I took a break to collect myself.”
She considered trying to join the U.S. Army too. “I had met some pretty fantastic people that have served or are currently serving in the army.” But that was when she met the recruiters and superior officers who expressed their reservations about her qualifications based on her eczema.
“I had my waiver and everything,” Alex said. “I had two different letters, from two different doctors, saying my eczema would not put anyone at risk. I wasn’t officially disqualified from the Army, but talking to a lot of veterans and recruiters it would’ve been a ‘no’ anyways.”
That was her third attempt to enlist. “It was frustrating,” she said. “But all that time, my brother told me: keep going, keep going. And I told him, ‘I’m nervous. You know, what if I can’t do it?’ But he just told me: keep going.”
In October of 2020, Alex took the test one last time. And, at last, she passed. Having passed the test, however, Alex didn’t realize there was one major obstacle remaining; even though she had been granted medical clearance by her doctors, her waivers would still need to be accepted by the Air Force medical board. And, even after she passed the entrance examination, the Air Force medical board marked a red flag in reviewing Alex’s medical report and indicated that that they wouldn’t have a topical medication for her to use in battle — enough to disqualify her from joining the Air Force.
When her recruiter called her with the disappointing news, she asked if Alex would be willing to serve in the U.S. Navy. The Navy, according to the recruiter, had different criteria for medical approval than the Air Force. Since Alex’s test scores were already high enough, all she would need to do is re-submit her paperwork through a Navy recruiter instead. Eczema would not disqualify her.
“It was only like two, three days later,” said Alex. “And I got in.”
Alex signed up and now has a three year contract to serve in the U.S. Navy. Her dream, though realized in a way she had not expected, is about to come true. “I want people to realize,” she said. “Life is what you make it. You are your own investment and the world is yours. If you fall, get up and dust yourself off and keep it moving. Take risks and never give up on what you want, always fight for it.”
Alex Dawkins is a NEA Ambassador. Learn more and join NEA Ambassadors.