Skip to Main Content
Chico State

Military Trailblazer Mary Kight: Lessons on Leadership

Mary Kight, a retired US Air Force Major General and 1973 CSU, Chico alum, speaking to students in November.
Photos by Jason Halley / University Photographer

Mary Kight, a retired US Air Force Major General and 1973 CSU, Chico alum, spoke to a group of female veteran students in November. (Photos by Jason Halley / University Photographer)

A 2007 California State University, Chico Distinguished Alumna.

Retired US Air Force Major General.

The first female adjutant general of the California National Guard and the first African American woman National Guard adjutant general.

A trailblazer on multiple fronts, Mary Kight has amassed a collection of military accolades and professional achievements.

But one day earlier this month, she introduced herself simply as Mary Kight before settling in on a sofa for an informal chat, right alongside a trio of CSU, Chico women veterans at the University’s Student Veteran Center.

Personable, unassuming, perceptive, and quick to laugh, Kight kept discussion about herself brief, telling the group her mission that morning was to focus on the students’ experiences.

Connecting with students helps her to “keep an ear to the ground,” she explained. “There’s a lot they have accomplished during the time they served.”

The young women said they learned a lot from their meeting with Kight—about the importance of being tenacious, turning professional challenges into opportunities, and having mentors.

They also learned about her dedication to leadership.

“My first love is commanding, and my second love is aircraft maintenance,” Kight told them. “I came up during a period in time when there weren’t many women in that particular career field and now we’re all over the place.”

Her presence mesmerized the students, which included an Air Force reservist, one veteran of the Army National Guard, and a civilian who is married to a former military member who is now employed at Beale Air Force Base.

Mary Kight (second from right) talks to CSU, Chico veteran students Kaitlin Gronlund, Trista Beitz, and Rachele Rooney (left to right).
Mary Kight talks to CSU, Chico students (left to right) Kaitlin Gronlund, Trista Beitz, and Rachele Rooney. Gronlund’s spouse served in the military, while Beitz is an Air Force reservist and Rooney served in the Army National Guard.

Trista Beitz, the reservist, is studying sustainable manufacturing and told the group that she’s often the only woman in her military unit.

“Tell me, what’s that like nowadays?” Kight inquired.

“I’m just one of the guys,” Beitz replied. “They look out for me. They kind of watch my back, and I watch theirs. It’s kind of like family. It’s like having lots of brothers.”

Kight told the women to remember that “there’s always power in numbers. But there’s power in small numbers, too. We’re a powerful group because we represent those who went before us and those who are coming up behind us.”

After high school, the Monterey, California native completed an associate degree at Monterey Peninsula College and went on to graduate from CSU, Chico in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in social welfare.

She said an on-campus career day while she was a CSU, Chico student led to her decision to join the Air Force. At that time, Kight said she wasn’t clear about where the future would take her, although her father had been a soldier in the Army.

“I was young,” she explained. “You don’t know what you’re going to do at that point.”

Kight initially thought she’d serve in the military just for four years, but instead remained drawn to military service, steadily progressing through the ranks until her retirement in 2011.

Said Kight of her four decades-long military career, “It was quite the experience for me.”

Mary Kight, a retired US Air Force Major General and 1973 CSU, Chico alum, speaking to students in November.
Mary Kight, a retired US Air Force Major General and CSU, Chico alum, spoke to a group of female veteran students in November.

Kaitin Gronlund, a microbiology major whose spouse served in the Air Force, said the talk inspired her.

“I think it’s really cool to hear how (Kight) got to where she is,” Gronlund said.

Rachele Rooney, another microbiology major and a veteran of the Army National Guard, agreed.

“It feels like I’m part of history by meeting someone so important,” Rooney said after getting a goodbye hug from Kight, who would go on to speak the Chico State Honoring Our Veterans event later that day. “To be that accomplished—she’s a big deal.”

Kight resides in Sacramento, where she volunteers at the Sacramento VA Medical Center in Mather, California and at the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services. She also is a member of the 18-member University Advisory Board at CSU, Chico, which is part of University President Gayle Hutchinson’s office, and provides advice and guidance on issues important to the University and broader community.

Kight was grateful for the opportunity to meet with students firsthand.

“While there are generational differences, we still have a great deal of similarities in terms of our experience and that is working through growth as a professional,” she said.

Out of the University’s 17,000 students, about 200 are veterans and nearly 40 are women, according to Larry Langwell, coordinator of the CSU, Chico Office of Veterans Affairs. Another 450 University students are dependents of people who are now enlisted in the military or are military veterans, he said.

Veterans Affairs director Larry Langwell (left) walks with Mary Kight (right), a retired US Air Force Major General and 1973 alum, was the first female adjutant general and the first African American to hold that position in National Guard History, speaks to a group of our female veteran students before the Honoring Out Veterans event on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer)
Larry Langwell, coordinator of CSU, Chico’s Office of Veterans Affairs, walks on campus with Mary Kight, a retired US Air Force Major General.

The University has consistently received awards for providing support services for veterans, including granting academic credit for military service, giving priority class registration, and providing assistance to the 95 percent of student veterans who are also first-generation college students.

“Our Student Veteran Organization is almost 50 years old. That contributes highly to our success here,” Langwell said of the group, which he said supports student veterans on many levels, both on campus and in the wider community.

Asked by the students for any parting advice, Kight said, “In adversity, always look for that silver lining, because it’s there.”

“And,” added Kight, “just remember to have fun with what you’re doing. You’ve got to have fun.”