'Life Tools': Women Veterans Bring Unique Experiences to Campus

First-year Ada Comstock Scholar Julia Riccardi, one of a small number of Smithies in recent years who have served in the military. Photo by Katherine Bei Heald '18

In 2014, after Julia Riccardi completed five years in the U.S. Army Reserves, she knew she wanted to earn a college degree.

But Riccardi—who served as a biomedical equipment specialist in Afghanistan and worked in a medical lab unit in Qatar—never expected she would end up studying at a prestigious liberal arts college such as Smith.

“My idea was to go back to school part-time,” says Riccardi, who is a first-year Ada Comstock Scholar. “At the community college I was attending in Arizona, a professor of mine recommended Smith, which felt like the big leagues. I must have had some inkling it would work out because when I visited campus, everything felt right.”

At Smith this fall, Riccardi has been studying neuroscience, learning French and enjoying the network of fellow Ada Comstock Scholars.

Their bond, she says, is reminiscent of the one she formed with members of her Reserve unit. “There’s that instant camaraderie of shared experience,” Riccardi says. “As Adas, we all had to leave some sort of life to be here.”

Riccardi, who once thought the military would be her vocation, is now working toward a career as a scientist. “I’m happy I found Smith,” she says. “Hopefully, the word can get out to more veterans that schools like this have spots for them.”

In an effort to spread that message, Smith has joined a program that aims to open the doors of selective colleges and universities to more qualified veterans. The VetLink program, run by the nonprofit Service2School organization, identifies high-achieving veterans, connects them with participating colleges and mentors them through the college admission process.

Smith is currently the only women’s college to have joined VetLink. Other partner schools include Amherst, Cornell, The University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Notre Dame, Williams and Yale.

Sid Dalby, associate director of admission at Smith, says the college’s participation in VetLink is part of a national effort to help more veterans advance their education.

Supporting veterans has also been part of Smith’s history, Dalby points out. The Smith School for Social Work grew out of a program that trained social workers to help the burgeoning number of World War I veterans suffering from the effects of combat. And in 1975, the college founded the Ada Comstock Scholars Program to offer admission to women whose education had been interrupted for family, work or other reasons—including military service.

“By definition, an Ada is someone who is 24 years or older, has a dependent or is a veteran,” Dalby says. “These women bring diversity to our campus and add a different point of view to class discussions.”

Connecting women veterans to opportunities at Smith can be challenging, Dalby says, because only 11 percent of all veterans are female, and most tend to enroll in schools located near their last military posting.

“When women get out of the service, it can be hard to adjust,” Dalby adds. “Many need advice and guidance to meet their goals.”

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Marine Corps veteran Melissa Torres AC ’11 (right) in the Smith biology lab where she worked as a research associate.

That was true for Melissa Torres AC ’11, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Torres, who came from a military family, was proud of the skills she’d developed in the Marines, but discovered her experience did not translate easily to the civilian work world.

“I had worked as a field radio operator and had a lot of training,” says Torres, who lives in Northampton with her daughter, Lucy, 12. “It was interesting to see how little that seemed to matter in the civilian world.”

After attempting to find work as a police dispatcher, Torres enrolled at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Mass., where she discovered she loved biology and where an adviser suggested she apply to Smith.

Torres says Smith’s Ada Comstock Scholars Program offered housing and other supports she needed as a single mother studying for a college degree. She graduated in January 2011 and was hired as a research associate in Smith’s Department of Biological Sciences.

Torres says Smith gave her confidence in her ability to contribute to an academic community—a goal she had not been focused on in high school.

“Traditional-age Smithies come with a lot of technical tools. We veterans come with a lot of life tools,” Torres says. “Smith is a collection of women from different backgrounds and different parts of the world. The college fosters that strength and allows you to learn from one another.”

When Riccardi reflects on what she brings to campus, she recalls the desire to achieve and the patriotic feelings that led her to enlist in the Reserves. She was 10 years old when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred—events she says influenced her decision to join the military.

Riccardi’s experience as a sergeant in the Reserves taught her the importance of teamwork and opened her eyes to challenges facing people in other parts of the world.

“In the hospital I worked at in Afghanistan, a lot of locals would come in for care because they didn’t have access to basic health services,” Riccardi says. “It was amazing to see that amidst all of the craziness” of being in a combat zone.

Riccardi—who received a military service medal for her work promoting women leaders in Qatar—says few of her Smith classmates are aware that she is a veteran. Her Green Street housemates know because she still trains monthly with an Army Reserve unit in her home state of Texas.

Riccardi hopes to reach out to other student veterans—perhaps through the Five College network—and find more ways to share her experiences with fellow Smithies.

“For a lot of people, there’s a disconnect—the military is something you see on TV,” Riccardi says. “But there’s a lot of talent in the service and a lot that can translate to other sectors.”