As a full-time research program manager for Apogee Engineering, Michelle Alvarez-Rea, 35, manages a team of six contractors who support the United States Air Force Academy’s $55 million in government research program efforts. In addition, she works as a photojournalist for the Colorado Air National Guard out of Buckley Air Force Base, traveling nationally and internationally — including documenting recent efforts in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
Alvarez-Rea was born in Puerto Rico, and captured the recent destruction on the island while also donating her time to the U.S. territory’s relief efforts. A Doherty High School graduate, she went to UCCS and, while she originally joined the Air Force as a medic, she cross-trained in public affairs, where she took a spot behind the camera so others could get a glimpse of the U.S. Armed Forces’ national and international endeavors.
Has it been difficult managing both your jobs?
Traditionally, the National Guard is supposed to be one weekend a month and two weeks out of the year. As we face manning shortages and national disasters, though, it can obviously be more demanding than that. I’ve definitely put in way more, but it’s a balance. Apogee is very understanding and flexible with my military schedule. A lot of times I’ll be doing work for USAFA while I’m out doing work for the National Guard as well.
What does your job entail?
Our office supports the budget for the research program [including science, technology, engineering and math] outreach, which impacts 30,000 kids a year in the local community. Our office supports technology transfer within the local community, and I handle events and publicity within the Academy, to establish relationships and collaborations with outside organizations interested in academia, who are interested in partnering in research with the Academy. I also work with foreign nationals that come to do exchange-type research programs with the Air Force Academy.
What are your impressions of the Air Force?
I love both my jobs. On the Air Force side, I feel like I have the best job, hands down — I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The fact that I get to support the mission is cool. The cadets are amazing! When you see what they can do and the things they can come up with, it’s incredible. A lot of times I hear people complain about teenagers and their lack of drive and motivation. I always think, they don’t get to see the teenagers I see. That’s our future and they’re going to lead it, and they’re going to own it.
Where has your work as a photojournalist taken you?
I’ve been to Slovenia and Jordan [Colorado’s sister countries through the Guard’s State Partnership Program]. In Slovenia, we created a usable range center facility that was used by the U.S., Slovenian and NATO countries for joint and multinational exercises. In Jordan, I served as ambassador of the Air National Guard to partner with our Jordanian public affairs counterparts to help them expand their message. Jordan is very different in the sense that they don’t really share a lot — it’s hard for them to tell their message. … Their freedom of speech is a lot more regulated than ours is. I [helped] to build and strengthen the public affairs relationships and strengthen their messaging. I was also recently deployed to Puerto Rico to help with post-Hurricane Maria efforts.
What was your first impression of Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria?
My plane landed that day, and it was unrecognizable. It’s a view that I’m used to — I’ve flown in and out of that island so many times. … Everything was completely destroyed and wiped out. It looked like a bomb had gone off.
What did you do while in Puerto Rico?
I spent a month there doing emergency aid and recovery efforts — also covering and documenting the efforts of the Guard and the Armed Forces. It’s still a battle every day. My cousins [who live in Puerto Rico] will tell me ‘Oh, there’s another power outage again.’ We recently hit the six-month mark and 84 percent of the island has power. That seems like not so big a deal unless you’re the other 16 percent. The way that I experienced it, it was that the biggest impact came to those that had the least already. When we were there, the hardest-hit areas were those in the mountain towns and it was so difficult to get water and supplies up there. That’s still the bulk of the area that still doesn’t have water. It’s a lot more difficult for them to get into town to get the resources they need. … When I went [to Puerto Rico], I took a huge suitcase for my family [full] of batteries and lanterns. … It’s super old-school, you can’t really fathom what to do without power. … It’s a long road ahead. I think things have gotten better and there’s been drastic improvement but it’s just not there yet.