News Stories

DINFOS award winner inspires students’ confidence

By U.S. Army Spc. Amy Carle | Defense Information School | February 04, 2016

FORT MEADE, Md. --

Her infectious smile, stylish appearance and bubbly personality make it difficult to imagine that Brooksann Epiceno was ever a painfully shy teenager who spent her school years reading with teachers to avoid school bullies.

Epiceno, an instructor at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, said she only really learned to step out of her bubble after she joined the U.S. Coast Guard and started going out on search and rescue missions.

“I was so glad that I joined,” she said. “I was terrified, but it was the best thing that ever happened because it has and still does force me to step outside my comfort zone.”

The journey that built her confidence has also helped Epiceno connect with her students and help them discover their strengths and motivations.

Epiceno received the DINFOS Instructor of the Year Award at the school in December.

Epiceno has come a long way from her early days as a quiet, anxious bookworm. Her blue eyes sparkle behind purple tortoiseshell frames, and her words flow quickly and easily. However, slivers of her earlier days still remain, and she acknowledges she could have more faith in herself.

Epiceno grew up in Texas before moving to Richmond, Virginia. Her mother and stepfather worked five jobs between them to be able to afford to move into a house.  

“We came from the trailers,” she said. “We came from nothing, where we were scraping together dinner.”

Epiceno knew she wanted to be a teacher and a writer but realized there was no money for her to attend college, she said. She joined the Coast Guard after graduating from high school largely because her recruiter told her she could go straight to public affairs after basic training.

Instead, she found herself assigned to search and rescue. She learned there was a long waiting list for public affairs, and she wasn’t on it. Despite her initial disappointment, Epiceno began to discover a different side of herself.

“It really strengthened me in a lot of ways,” she said. Before then, “I just had no self-confidence, whatsoever, at all. That was just a really building time for me, on a personal level.” 

After nearly four years in search and rescue, she came to DINFOS to learn public affairs and was stationed in Hawaii after graduation. There, she had lots of opportunities to practice her newfound skills, frequently traveling on short missions and appearing in televised media briefings.

Epiceno was able to combine her dreams of writing and teaching when her contract brought her back to DINFOS as an instructor. She had fallen in love with DINFOS as a student, she said, and she praised the school environment.

“Teaching has been so rewarding,” she said. “There are amazing instructors all over this place who are killing it all the time.”

JoAnn Anderson, the academic director for the school’s public affairs department, remembers liking Epiceno’s bubbly personality from the first moment they met, when Anderson was a new instructor. Their friendship was cemented when they became partner instructors for an intermediate course. Though they had little time to prepare for the class, they found they were naturally aligned on how it should be organized, and Anderson said she knew they would work well together.

“When we actually started teaching the class, we really bounced off each other,” Anderson said. “We really inspired each other to do better. We made it like a fun little competition, and the end result was whatever is better for the students.”

Anderson said Epiceno never stops challenging herself to build better courses and connect with students in meaningful ways to help them learn, and she always evaluates everything she does to make sure it works.

“She created a rap that kind of didn’t work out very well,” Anderson said, smiling. “All of the students remembered it, but they didn’t remember what the rap was about.”

Epiceno laughed and rolled her eyes when remembering that lesson. She said it was embarrassing to perform in front of the class, but she doesn’t mind looking goofy as long as it helps students learn. She would have kept performing it, but since students couldn’t remember the material, she replaced it with an “American Idol” parody, which worked much better.

Epiceno said she works hard to find ways to make her lessons engaging. Often she uses her own ideas, but she credits her colleagues with helping her if she gets stuck.

When she couldn’t find the right angle to present an especially dry lesson, Epiceno asked for advice from a colleague in the faculty training and development office. Armed with fresh ideas, she planned all new activities.

“The first time I taught that lesson after that, it was magic,” she said. “One of the students came up to me and said, ‘That’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a military training, ever.’ ”

Epiceno keeps driving herself to create the best possible learning environment. She said she wants to help students get excited about their jobs, whether it’s a brand-new student who will be doing the work for the first time or a seasoned noncommissioned officer looking for ways to improve.

“I want everyone to feel as passionate about everything as I do,” she said.

Though she appears confident and poised on the surface, even after 10 years of teaching and a certification as a master instructor, she still questions herself. After the DINFOS commandant, Col. Martin Downie, observed one of her classes, a student remarked about how calm she appeared and asked her how she managed it.

“I didn’t eat dinner the night before or breakfast the day of because I was so nervous,” she said. “I thought I was going to throw up.…Then I ate lunch, and it was wonderful.”

Anderson said after all Epiceno’s hard work and dedication, it was easy to see why she was selected for the award.

“She hit every mark,” she said.  

Epiceno said she could hardly believe it when her name was called.

“Holy cow,” she said. “I was stunned. I was shocked. That’s how you think about me? That’s amazing.”

After the award was announced, Epiceno was invited to say a few words. She said she’s forgotten most of her speech, but, true to her personality, her message was focused on the people who surrounded her.

There were so many amazing people in the room that day, she said. She was just happy to be among them.