On March 30, Ouleye Coulibaly (pronounced oo-lay coo-lee-bal-ee) was promoted to Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army in a ceremony held at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies. Her promotion was celebrated by more than 50 staff and faculty members, and also included her husband, Abdou, and her two-year-old son, Muhammad. 

Coulibaly’s journey started in the westernmost part of Africa. Born in Dakar, Senegal, she spent her childhood going to school twice daily, once in the morning and again in the late-afternoon. Throughout the week she took additional classes to learn the Quran and read Arabic. On weekends, her mother taught her cooking and cleaning skills, which she used to help manage a household of over a dozen family members. Looking back, she fondly recalls living in a home filled with conversation and laughter, where she never needed a screen for entertainment.  

“We had each other,” recalls Coulibaly. 

In 2015, at the age of 15, Coulibaly and her brother moved to Irvington, Alabama, to join her father who had been working there as an engineer. This move was a significant change from the bustling city of Dakar, and she struggled to adapt to the quiet town of only 12,000 people. However, she excelled in her studies at Alma Bryan High School. She improved her English, earned straight A’s, and took Advanced Placement French. After graduating, she wanted to pay for her own college tuition. She spoke with an Army recruiter and decided to enlist as a human resources specialist. 

When she told her parents she wanted to join the Army, her mother was skeptical. In Senegal, the military required women and men to shave their heads, and the training conditions were known to be harsh. She assured her mother that serving in the U.S. military would be different. She officially enlisted in August 2016.  

Coulibaly completed her basic training at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. Interacting with soldiers from different cultures and various parts of the country, her confidence grew. When some recruits showed fear when confronted with the ire of their drill sergeants, Coulibaly wasn’t afraid. She knew that the drill sergeants were doing their job so when they made her do push-ups, she took it as an opportunity to grow stronger. She credits her Islamic faith for helping her transition to life as a soldier, believing that whatever happens in her life is because God wanted it that way. 

Coulibaly and her classmates celebrate graduating from basic training

In her four years stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Coulibaly learned from her leaders. In particular Capt. Shane Roche, Sergeant First Class Kamika Fenkley ,and Sergent First Class Kevin Brown. She learned that the best kind of leaders communicate well and put others’ interests before their own. In September 2021, she arrived in Honolulu to work in the Center’s Administrative Management Office, where she was promoted to staff sergeant. 

Reflecting on her promotion, she never thought this day would come. When she first enlisted in the Army, her goal was to complete her college degree and become an officer through the Army’s Green-to-Gold program. However, she delayed her studies to give birth to her son. In 2021, she graduated from American Intercontinental University with a degree in health care management. Looking back, she cherishes the extra time she took to become a mother. 

“I wouldn’t trade the time having my son with anything else,” she says. 

In her promotion ceremony, she thanked her husband for supporting her military career and her parents for instilling in her faith and the value of doing your best. While she still misses her family in Senegal, she appreciates the lessons she learned from having immersed herself in the U.S. culture and its military.   

“[Coming from Senegal to the United States] gave me a broader understanding of other people,” she says. “You know more than just one way and become open-minded. It taught me how to put myself in others’ shoes and have empathy.”