United States Air Force Captain Staci A. Rouse always knew she wanted to fly.

“When I was younger, I asked my dad how to be an astronaut and he told me becoming a pilot should probably be the first step,” she tells Bustle, laughing. Once she got older, though, she set her sights on something a little closer to home.

“I wanted to do something impactful, and I thought serving my country would be a good way to start." She was right: As an Air Force Captain, Rouse, now over 10 years into her military career, has used her skills for everything from gathering government intelligence for humanitarian missions to detecting early signs of California wildfires, all while learning a lot along the way.

Bustle partnered with the U.S. Air Force and Captain Rouse’s current unit, the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, to share her experience writing her own career story in one of the most challenging — and rewarding — fields out there.

Here are the lessons that stuck.

1. Keep Your Mind Open And Your Hand Up

When Rouse arrived at the Air Force Academy at age 17, she only had a vague idea of the possibilities that lay before her.

“I thought that I could be a pilot, a maintenance officer, or an intelligence officer,” she recalls. Quickly, she realized that those roles were just the tip of the iceberg. At the Academy, she minored in Japanese and spent two summers living with a host family in Japan, built up her international relations skills through an exchange program with the German Air Force Academy, and volunteered for new experiences whenever they arose.

Rouse has since gone on to earn her Masters of Business for Veterans and rise through the U.S. Air Force ranks, carving out a niche that even she couldn’t have predicted: “I’m an Acquisitions Officer, but I have a background in Intelligence, so I’m able to work with programs that integrate both, which I never knew would be possible.”

2. Be Confident In What You Bring To The Table

When it comes to male-dominated fields, it’s not uncommon for women to feel overshadowed and undervalued. In Rouse’s experience, the way to combat this is to recognize the skills that only you offer — and never be afraid to let them shine.

“Every man or woman who comes into the Air Force has their own skills to bring to the table,” says Rouse. “No one’s skills are exactly the same as the people around them, but that’s what makes us such a strong team.”

3. Make Balance A Priority

In the early stages of her career in Intelligence, Rouse operated under a strict schedule. She worked grueling 12-hour shifts, but the silver lining was that she had to leave her work at the facility when she went home due to its classified nature. Once she switched into Acquisitions, however, her new schedule required her to be more intentional about creating a work-life balance.

“If you’re good at your job, people will come to you with more responsibilities and more expectations,” she tells Bustle. To balance out her work schedule, she learned to surf (“I’m not very good at it,” she laughs), started hitting the rock climbing gym three days a week, and realized that some days, she just needed to rally her friends for an impromptu dinner.

“It’s important to have perspective when it comes to work-life balance,” she says.

4. Figure Out What Matters, And Then Let It Guide You

Even though her role has transformed throughout her time in the service, Rouse has always had a north star when it comes to why she does what she does. Even when she faced challenges in training or her post-Academy career, she recalls that she and her colleagues focused on the good that they were doing: “We always had a bigger picture ahead of us that kept us going.”

Years later, while serving as a Missions Operations Commander in Germany, Rouse helped to execute 13 humanitarian missions which saved the lives of over 2,000 refugees. Anchoring her career not in a role but in a purpose allows her to grow professionally and personally, while never wavering from the thing that drives her.

5. Allow Your Plans To Change

Rouse’s childhood dream of living the life of an astronaut hasn’t panned out — and that’s perfectly OK. As she’s built her career, she’s come to recognize the importance of following her heart no matter where it leads.

“The reason that you join the Air Force might not always be the reason you stay,” says Rouse. “When I was 17 years old, I didn’t know what my true passions in life were; I just knew I wanted to help.”

And while she’s been successful at carving out a niche for herself, she still sees room for change. “I’m still trying to figure out what interests me in the grand scheme of things,” she says. “Eventually, things will be clear, and I know that my Air Force family will be there to help me along the way.”

This post is sponsored by the U.S. Air Force.

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