Cynthia Kallberg GS'12 Named Alumna of the Year for the College of Adult & Professional Studies and Graduate School

Kallberg has been a trailblazer for women in the military, climbing the ranks to roles previously never held by female soldiers. Today, she’s a retired senior leader who travels across the country to train and mentor the next generation of military personnel.

By Cherie Suonvieri '15, content specialist

October 15, 2020 | 3:30 p.m.

Bethel University 2020 Alumna of the Year

Cynthia Kallberg served as the Minnesota National Guard’s first female Senior Enlisted Advisor, and is the 2020 Alumna of the Year for Bethel's College of Adult & Professional Studies and Graduate School.

Cynthia Kallberg GS’12 decided to join the United States Army at age 17. She approached two recruiters after they’d presented in her high school Spanish class and told them she’d like to enlist in the fall and use her Spanish language skills. “They said, ‘You can leave in two weeks, and you can do Russian’—and I figured that was close enough,” Kallberg laughs.

Kallberg began her military career as a Russian intelligence analyst in 1984, when female soldiers were more of an anomaly. During basic training, she remembers hearing drill sergeants calling male soldiers “women” or “ladies” to insult them. “I really tried to be the best solider I could be and downplay the fact that I was a female soldier,” Kallberg says. “It just had different connotations.”

Despite the resistance, Kallberg rose through the ranks. She was promoted to Special Security Officer in 2003 and Command Sergeant Major in 2007. After her 2010 tour in Iraq, she retired briefly before she was called back by the Minnesota National Guard to become the Senior Enlisted Advisor in 2011.

Kallberg knew it would be at least 10 years before another woman was in position to fill the role, so she accepted the job, becoming the first female Senior Enlisted Advisor for the Minnesota National Guard. She’d never considered the job before, because it had never felt like an option. Thinking of the women who would come after her, she decided it was time to open that door.
When Kallberg received the call back, she was working on her M.A. in Organizational Leadership at Bethel. While she’d taken many leadership courses throughout her career, Kallberg chose Bethel specifically for its biblical worldview. “It gave me a bigger picture, helping me look beyond the task at hand and understand how I could be used in God’s plan,” she says.

Kallberg leaned on that perspective as she encountered challenges in her new role. As the Senior Enlisted Advisor, she was responsible for more than 14,000 people, and several of them were her peers when she retired. She’d worked with these men in combat and all the way up through the ranks. “When they called me back, a lot of those same peers felt they’d been looked over,” Kallberg explains. “Being a retiree and a female in that position was not welcomed by everybody. That was a challenge, but I knew this was bigger than just me.”

As Senior Enlisted Advisor, Kallberg addressed a variety of issues throughout the armed forces like suicide, sexual assault, diversity, and female leadership. In 2014, she instituted and facilitated a Women’s Leadership Forum for female soldiers and airmen in the Minnesota National Guard—an event that has continued every year, even after her retirement.

The Women’s Leadership Forum was born out of Kallberg’s passion for mentoring, specifically mentoring women. And her passion for mentoring grew out of her personal experience. “When I was coming up the ranks in the military, I had a lot of great mentors, but there were no women. I’d never even met a female first sergeant until I became one,” Kallberg says. She viewed the Women’s Leadership Forum as an opportunity to reach back to women navigating their paths through the military, like she once did.

Today, Kallberg lives in Azle, Texas, and works on a government-contracted doctoral training team, traveling alongside other retired senior leaders to provide training and mentorship to active military members. The team, colloquially known as the “gray beards,” speaks from their experience to build on the soldiers’ skillsets. “There aren’t many retired female senior leaders. They all have gray beards, so they bought me one I can put on to match,” Kallberg laughs.

“It’s an honor to add to their tool box. The new generation of soldiers has taken the baton, but I still get to build on their leadership, add to their skillsets, and help create servant leaders.”

— Cynthia Kallberg GS’12

In her current role, Kallberg continues to have opportunities to connect with women in the military. One day while she was on assignment, she found a young female lieutenant sitting on the restroom floor in tears. The lieutenant explained to Kallberg that she had newborn baby at home and that it was her first drill back. “I was able to sit down next to her and say, ‘Hey, I get it. I’ve been there, and you can get through this,’” Kallberg says.

Over the years, Kallberg has been formally recognized for her accomplishments in a number of ways. In 2009, she was awarded the Bronze Star for her strategic and courageous leadership in Iraq. She was also inducted into the Camp Ripley Court of Honor in 2019. This fall, she was named Alumna of the Year for Bethel’s College of Adult & Professional Studies and Graduate School. But when asked about these accomplishments, Kallberg humbly points back to God, who positioned her to make an impact, and to the people around her, who’ve mentored and supported her throughout her career.

Every day when Kallberg fires up her computer, a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson greets her from her desktop: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

“I like that,” Kallberg says. “I think you really have to look at the impact you’re having on others. Ask what you’re doing that’s making the biggest difference—and then do more of that.”

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