For most people fresh out of high school, life is still full of uncertainties and questions. There are many options and choices related to pursuing education, finding a job that may or may not turn into a career, developing new relationships and redefining old ones, discovering personal passions and interests. It is not unusual for the average 19-year-old to be in a kind of limbo, uncertain of their life’s true direction.
And then there are 19-year-olds like Brooke DeLeon.
At 19, DeLeon chose to enter North Central Texas College (NCTC) Fire Academy at her own expense, determined to become a firefighter/paramedic. Upon her graduation in May 2019, she is halfway to that goal.
Her motivation was clear from a young age. “I always knew that I wanted to work in public service,” she said. “I had considered the military previously. People in my family worked in law enforcement, so that was a huge factor.”
DeLeon commented that she was looking into EMT school toward the goal of becoming a paramedic when “the fire academy kind of fell into my lap.” A family friend mentioned going to the fire academy to become a firefighter/paramedic. She subsequently enrolled in the NCTC fire academy and “absolutely fell in love with it,” she said.
Only woman in her academy class
DeLeon entered an academy class of 21 members, of which 17 ultimately graduated. The class was diverse in age, background and experience, although most of her fellow students were like her in attending on their own vs. being sponsored by a fire department. DeLeon was the only woman in the class.
The program lasted four months and included classroom, live fire, and hazmat training. It required significant commitment, especially for people like DeLeon, who continued to work at other jobs when they weren’t at the academy. Fire academy ran four days per week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., plus frequent extra sessions on weekends. DeLeon credits her employer with being flexible with her scheduling during that time.
A sense of community and encouragement in the fire academy
One of the best aspects of fire academy for DeLeon was the strong sense of community she felt with the other students in the program. “We bonded quickly,” she said. “We became family. We realized that we needed to work and we needed to do it together.”
Still, there were challenges. DeLeon said that for her, the most challenging aspect of the program was the physical element. “I had done sports in high school, but nothing with this intensity,” she said. “Having that group of people to push me was how I got through it.”
A particular obstacle for DeLeon was the requirement to complete a Firefighter Combat Challenge course as part of the curriculum. “I struggled a lot with that,” she said. “A lot of the guys were acing it and that discouraged me. I was hard on myself during that time, thinking I did not deserve to be there. But one of the instructors came to me and told me that he believed I had the drive to be there, that he could see it in how I pushed myself. He told me, you deserve to be here. Don’t give up.”
Later, when she went out to dinner with her academy classmates, they similarly encouraged her. “They told me they loved me, that they wanted me to be there, and that they wanted to help me any way they could – and they did,” she said.
Ultimately, DeLeon succeeded with the Combat Challenge and all other aspects of the course work. In fact, she ended up finishing a close second to the top of her class.
The fire academy is hard, no matter who you are. Some of the men in the class also struggled with physical and academic aspects of the curriculum. There were also conflicts among the students at times.
DeLeon encourages young women and men considering the fire service to not give up, no matter what. “Find your people,” she advised. “The people in your academy will be important in your life. Let them push you. You will get discouraged. You will fail. But you have to push yourself every day. You have to know that you being better today will save someone tomorrow.”
Looking beyond the fire academy
DeLeon is energized as she looks toward the future. The next step is completing EMT school, and she is pleased that some of her fellow academy graduates will join her in that class. Then she hopes to be hired by either a career or volunteer fire department where she can ultimately attend paramedic school. “Paramedic school is the goal,” she said. “I want to become a firefighter/paramedic and complete that journey.”
Although DeLeon is singularly focused on her career goals at this point, she appreciates that it is possible for women to combine a fire service career with having a family. “I’ve met a couple women firefighters in the North Texas area who do have a family and kids, and that was very encouraging. Going into this, I was thinking it was either have a family or work in the fire service. I didn’t know you could have both.”
DeLeon is positive as she looks ahead. “I’m super excited to be able to work with a great group of people and help people as well,” she said. “It’s rare to find a group of people who have the same morals and who get along on all sorts of levels and become family. That was something I didn’t realize I was looking for, but then I found it.”