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Moving beyond a mistake: Academy cadet mentors troubled teens in his hometown

Story by Jennifer Spradlin, Jan. 25, 2020

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Cadet 2nd Class Prince Njoku believes in second chances.

Over winter break, the Academy cadet spent time mentoring middle and high schoolers at the Fort Bend Juvenile Facility in Richmond, Texas. The facility houses juveniles awaiting court appearances for a wide range of illegal behavior from theft to assault.

“Humility is so key, I think, to being a good leader, and I felt that I could learn as much from these kids as they learned from me,” he said.

Njoku is the first to admit he’s not perfect. He mishandled a personal situation during the summer heading into his junior year at the Academy and was found in violation of the school’s Honor Code.

Cadets are held to a high standard that governs their conduct and serves as the framework for the honorable service expected after graduation.

Njoku owned his mistake and worked hard to remediate the violation. More than that, he carried those lessons into his time with the young people he mentored.

“I told them, ‘Hey, I’ve made mistakes, too. Mistakes happen in life, but don’t get discouraged by your current circumstances.’ It was important to give back and let these kids know they still have value,” he said.

The detention facility focuses on educational courses during the school year but brings in mentors during holiday and summer breaks to model positive behaviors and outcomes for the kids, hoping to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

“A lot of these kids are just trying to survive, and no one else has really shown them there are different options out there for them,” said Susan Bearden, Fort Bend Juvenile Facility special programs director. “It makes such a huge difference when the mentors are younger [like Prince] because it’s so much more relatable for them.”

Njoku emigrated to the U.S. from Africa when he was seven. He said his family bought into the American dream and the opportunities available here. In high school, he played football and caught the eye of Academy scouts.

“I was scared at first about coming here because I knew the expectations would be high. I worried maybe I wouldn’t succeed, but I knew the chance was just too good to pass up, and I’m grateful I gave it a try,” he said.

Injuries ultimately sidelined his collegiate football career, but Njoku is active in other sports here. He hopes to be a pilot but will make the most of any opportunity to serve in the Air Force.

Njoku said mentorship and family support were key to his own personal success and without it he might have been in over his head as a teen.

“My approach going into the session was that I’m not different or better than them. I have just been blessed to be at this point in my life,” he said. “It was an extremely rewarding experience.”