Direct Connections

Capt. Nikki Yogi’s ACE program pairs Air Force ROTC Det. 157 cadets with alumni for mentorship opportunities and an in-depth look at active duty life

Imagine having to make a career-defining decision without ever visiting your future worksite or meeting your coworkers. Many U.S. Air Force cadets found themselves in that exact position after federal budget cuts eliminated professional development training (PDT) and funding for base visits, which had offered in-depth looks at the operations on bases.

To fill the gap for cadets at Embry-Riddle’s Detachment 157 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Capt. Nikki Yogi (’12) spearheaded the Alumni and Cadet Engagement (ACE) program. The program pairs cadets with Det. 157 alumni to give them an inside look at military life, and to open doors for senior-junior mentorships. Over the past three years, active duty Embry-Riddle alumni have hosted 28 cadets for weekend tours of what work and life are like at their bases of interest.

Under the Wire

“Ever since I was little, I’ve known I wanted to fly,” Yogi says. “However, I knew nothing about the military. I always thought I would fly for a major airline.” Her destiny changed the summer before her senior year of high school, when she met her great-aunt and great-uncle, who had both retired as chiefs after 30 years of service in the Air Force. They encouraged her to look into joining the ROTC and fly for the Air Force. Yogi’s mother, a teacher, asked around about universities with flight programs, and Embry–Riddle came highly recommended.

Yogi enrolled in 2008, and during her freshman year she made base visits to Moody and Robins Air Force Bases. “These base visits were often the only chance students like me would have to lay eyes on what life is like on the other side of their training,” she says. “As soon as I stepped foot on the base, I was able to see how everyone worked together, and how there was a team concept in every shop we went into. I remember thinking, ‘This is where I need to be.’”

Nikki Yogi, Chuck Graf and four AFROTC cadets in uniform.
Front row: 2nd Lts. Kevin Montes Gregsamer, Garrett Frazell and Jake Sonzogni. Back row: Retired Col. Chuck Graf, Capt. Nikki Yogi and 2nd Lt. Sarah Osborne. Yogi has hosted all four cadets pictured at her duty stations.

Yogi considers herself fortunate to have made those trips, because the funding for PDTs was soon eliminated. “Then, during my senior year, Chuck Graf, a retired Air Force colonel and Embry-Riddle graduate, and his wife, Liz, offered to host all of the cadets who were commissioning at their home and talk about pilot life and what to expect upon entering active duty. It was a tremendous resource.”

The Plan Takes Flight

After graduating from the Daytona Beach Campus with a degree in aeronautical science in 2012, Yogi was commissioned into the Air Force and began undergraduate pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Subsequent assignments have taken her to Davis–Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, to fly the A-10; a deployment to support Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq and Syria; and, earlier this year, she was assigned to Luke Air Force Base outside Phoenix to fly F-35s in the 63rd Fighter Squadron.

Meanwhile, in 2013, Graf (’75) and two cadets, Abby Hall (’12) and Nik Martini (’13), founded the AFROTC Det. 157 Alumni and Cadet Association, a network that supports both cadets and alumni in their careers, offering everything from emergency relief funds to financial planning seminars. Yogi sat on the association’s board for one year and realized she could piggyback on the startup to kickstart an ad-hoc mentoring program that would substitute for and improve upon the now defunct PDT. And thus, the Det. 157 ACE program was born.

The first year, she found 19 alumni who were willing to host, but only four cadets expressed interest — and two of them wanted to stay local. Only one match occurred.

“That summer, I got together with the alumni association and said, ‘We need to have a calendar and a game plan.’ Since then, we’ve had a steady flow of matches.” There have been 28 matches in three years, with six more in summer 2018.

Playing Host

“If I can take an hour out of my week and link up a few cadets with alumni, it’s rewarding for me,” Yogi says. The logistics, however, can be daunting. Alumni schedules can be volatile because of temporary duty and deployments, and while many cadets express an interest in visiting fighter bases, a limited number of mentorships are available, so students are prioritized by graduation dates.

Four air force servicemen standing in front of a helicopter.
Capt. Juan Rodriguez (‘14), second from right, hosts then Cadet Ryan Pieton (‘18), far right, at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming this past winter. Also pictured: Maj. Drew Ackles, far left, and Master Sgt. Gregory Patton.

Yogi not only coordinates the all-volunteer program, but also hosts cadets at her base. “I take them out to the flight line first, so I can hook ’em with how awesome the A-10 is — and then walk around from shop to shop to convey that, yes, we fly, but we also have another job, too.”

“Nikki epitomizes the best in what every successful organization hopes for in its membership — dedication, commitment and professionalism,” Graf says. “She’s the type of leader that others want to follow, and she makes a difference every day, especially as a role model and mentor in the Det. 157 family.”

Yogi’s hope is that one day ACE is a household name among cadets and alumni. “Right now, it still requires a lot of communication about what the program is. We’re getting close to that point, though — cadets who did ACE the first time around are now lieutenants, ready to play the role of hosts.”

Editor’s Note: Yogi started her F-35 transition course on July 10 at Luke AFB.