Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch: “Bring Your Humanity into the Room”
Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, ’88 MS Cybernetic Systems, became the highest-ranking Hispanic woman in the combat field support of the U.S. Army before launching Educational Achievement Services, Inc., a leadership development organization. Kickbusch is a recognized military and nonprofit leader, motivational speaker and the proud mother of five daughters.
My parents emigrated from Mexico to Laredo, Texas, before I was born and lived in a boxcar settlement. I had seven brothers and three sisters. Eight of us went on to become veterans. My parents instilled in us the desire to serve others, to never be so ambitious that we lose our sense of humanity. For our family, success was never defined by the things we possessed or how high we climbed the corporate ladder. We defined success as making a difference—passing on to others what we learned while serving as leaders.
As a student at Hardin Simmons University, I didn’t know that I’d be the first woman in Texas to be commissioned into the ROTC. I wanted to do what my brothers did. But the tenets of the Army were perfectly aligned with what our parents taught us: selfless service, integrity, honesty.
Without meaning to I became a pioneer. Prior to me being a line officer in the military, once a woman got pregnant, she was discharged. It was unknown what happened to women after that. Eventually the law changed and we were able to continue serving, but that left officers wondering what to do. Do they remove us from the unit, knowing that they have, in my case, a combat support mission to do? When I got pregnant, there wasn’t a uniform for me. We had to redesign it.
Throughout my years of service, I was often the only woman or person of color in the room. It was overwhelming and gratifying. I can never run away from being a brown-skinned woman. But what if I fail? What if I let down my sisters in the world? The world is a stage and it sometimes felt like everybody was looking at me.
When I went to San Jose State to get my master’s in cybernetics, I learned a new way of looking at computer science. I loved the open-mindedness of SJSU and the creativity that seemed to be all over campus. I was able to apply what I learned there to some of my classified military work. While I was in San Jose, my mother came to visit. She was distressed by the glorification of gang violence that she saw back in Texas and across the country, especially in communities of color. She told me, “before I die, I want you to tell me that you’re going to address why children have taken on this culture of violence.” Two weeks later, she died.
By that time, I was the mother of five daughters. The military had offered me a position as battalion commander, a high honor. Six thousand officers make their way to that one phone call, the promise of great responsibility and respect, and I got it. I was torn between loving my service to the country and listening to my mother’s words. I asked the Army to lay my uniform down. I retired.
With no money and no contacts, I reinvented myself and started Educational Achievement Services, Inc., a human development company designed to strengthen communities. We have developed programs to help children and families develop as leaders. Over the last 23 years, we have served one million children, visited 47 states and traveled the world.
As the product of an immigrant community and years of military service, diversity and inclusion have always been important to me. People feel difference first before they are made to recognize it—when someone speaks hatefully or infringes upon their dignity. As a motivational speaker, I provoke people to think deeper about racism, fascism, homophobia. If my provocation brings empathy, compassion or better understanding, I am okay with that. I am okay with being a messenger that makes people uncomfortable. The idea is to bring your humanity into the room.
I have a lot of hope that people will continue to do very courageous small things. I hope I have made my mother proud.