Finding community: Female veterans adjust to life at USC

Abigail Menendez is an undergraduate student planning to study environmental engineering who served in the Navy. (Kevin Fohrer | Daily Trojan)

After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2010, Katie Aleckson was at a loss.

The economy was still recovering from the recession and it was difficult to find work. She decided to enlist in the Navy — a path that led her to the Master of Public Health program at USC, where she is scheduled to graduate in December.

While some veterans like Aleckson have faced difficulties during their time in the armed forces, they are now finding a community at USC. And though the services provided can be limited — especially for active duty members — the University is developing programs to better serve student veterans.

“We know the value of people who have served in the military is really strong because … less than 1 percent of the population serves, so they have a unique perspective on the many things that they’ve worked on,” said Shahla Fatemi, who manages USC’s Military & Veteran Initiatives. “They’re bringing a huge value to USC and it’s also influencing the other students, staff and faculty.”

A challenge for women

Abigail Menendez, 24, left home for the first time when she was 17 to attend boot camp in Chicago. In July, she ended her service in the Navy, after being stationed overseas as well as California and Georgia.

“I like to challenge myself, so that really drove me,” Menendez said. “There were really tough times, but I really value those times because I grew as a person because of them.”

Although Menendez couldn’t speak extensively about her duty, she described her co-service members as mostly male. She worked her way to serve as a supervisor, but said many men looked at her with doubt or hostility, an experience she said many women in the armed forces shared.  

An older male supervisor wouldn’t listen to anything she said, telling her, “I’m not afraid to embarrass you in front of everybody,” she said. A close male friend once told Menendez that she had only received her position because she was a “pretty girl.”

“It caused self-doubt even though I knew that I earned those,” Menendez said. “It’s very like a boys’ club, so those things do happen, but I’m glad I got stronger because of that and know how to address them in the future.”

Last summer, Menendez decided she wanted to earn her bachelor’s degree after not being in school for six years, despite re-enlisting in the Navy. She plans to study environmental engineering to help fight climate change and hopes to get into politics using her military background.

“I think it’s important [to know] that all veterans have something that they could teach people,” Menendez said.

Katie Aleckson, a graduate student studying public health, is also a veteran who served in the Navy. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

Aleckson started in the Master of Public Health program, focusing on environmental health, after finishing her service in May 2017. She said that although USC does a good job recognizing veterans and providing services, she feels there is more emphasis placed on men, who are more visible as members of the Veterans Association and more represented in the Veterans Resource Center.

Only 14.5 percent of active duty service members are women. But Fatemi said that because of this perception, USC makes an effort to encourage female veterans to attend events and has multiple female members of the Veterans Resource Center board.

“Nothing that we do in the Veterans Resource Center is male-specific,” Fatemi said. “It’s open to all females, all people, all gender orientations and all sexual orientations.”

Aleckson said that she didn’t experience any discrimination as a woman in the military, but recognized that not all women had similarly tolerable experiences. She said she hopes to see more female veterans at events and further support each other on campus.

“We need to stop being ‘male or female,’ but [focus on] who people are as a person,” Aleckson said.

Service and study

Raquel Orozco, 35, is a Masters of Social Work student and an active duty military police member stationed in Fort Bragg. She has been in the military for a little over 18 years, and was accepted into USC in May this year.

According to Orozco, a lot of resources at the University are catered toward non-active duty veterans, which makes receiving help very difficult.

Free seminars and Continuing Education Units are only offered to personnel in the USC vicinity, making it difficult for active duty students to physically attend. Orozco said she wants USC to create an online service so out-of-state students can use the benefit provided for graduate students.

Fatemi added that the Veterans Resource Center is working on expanding its reach by talking to students like Orozco.

“We’re testing things out and we’re trying to develop programs, so a lot of it is just gathering information from the students themselves,” Fatemi said.

Fatemi said the Resource Center has been looking into establishing virtual hours for active duty members to give them the opportunity to Skype with the program coordinator.

After retiring, Orozco wants to work with veterans in combat through social work, and aims to use her background in the military to help them with the remainder of their lives. She plans to seek new treatments for combat veterans affected by isolation, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and survivor’s guilt — issues that some veterans at USC may struggle with. Ultimately, Orozco said she hopes students will recognize what their peers with military backgrounds may be going through.

“What inspired me to work with combat veterans is that for 18 years, I have been able to see how slow or limited mental health and assistance in managing isolation due to combat experience is,” Orozco said. “We don’t just think about going to war every day.”