A minority within a minority — women vets at College

Naomi Whidden

Marine Corps Veteran

Naomi Whidden went from fixing radios in the Marines to discovering stars in astronomy class.

Having joined up in 2017, former Sergeant Whidden served 5½ years as a ground electronics transmission systems maintainer, working with radios and communication systems that use radio frequency — things like satellite terminals or anything using satellite networks. The first-year, who attended the summer rising-scholars program, said she is looking to concentrate in plant sciences.

“I hope to work as a forester and maybe manage state timber or federal timber or something in the U.S. Forest Service,” she said. “To manage public resources in a way that’s responsible and sustainable.”

Courtesy of Naomi Whidden

One of the biggest challenges, she said, has been managing expectations, especially being in a long-distance relationship. She met her wife, Savannah, in the Marine Corps, and the couple got married in 2019. Savannah is still on active duty, living in Japan but soon to be stationed in D.C.

“A lot of times you justify being separated from your spouse by saying ‘I’m gonna go to school.’ And [expecting] to do well in school. And so sometimes when you don’t, you’re like, ‘Hey, is it worth it?’ For me to actually come here and be apart and then think you’re doing poorly? That can be really tough mentally.”

The key is remaining focused on the long-term vision. “I think that it’s important to keep yourself balanced and not get too upset about arbitrary grades,” she said.

Whidden, who enjoys cycling in her free time and has an affinity for tattoos, encourages classmates to get to know their veteran peers on campus.

“There is a cohesive veteran community here, but each each person is such an individual with such different backgrounds,” she said. “I think a lot of times there’s other students [who] think we’re just one type or we’re just one political view. Or we’re all from the same kind of cloth. And we all come from different backgrounds, different sexual identities, different family situations.

“Come say hi, and meet us and know that we’re all different and we’re a pretty diverse group.”

Alissa Maerzke.

Photo courtesy of Alissa Maerzke

Alissa Maerzke

Marine Corps Veteran

Alissa Maerzke said she joined the Marines not only to serve her country, but “because it was the hardest branch, and I wanted the challenge.”

The 26-year-old grew up in the small town of Waterford, Wisconsin, 90 minutes from Chicago and 45 minutes from downtown Milwaukee. She graduated high school in 2014, then did a semester at community college after being turned down by the University of Wisconsin.

What was intended as a prank around high school graduation proved oddly prescient.

“The last day of high school, our valedictorian, she wanted people to wear a shirt with where they were going to college. And I was at this sports store, and I saw these Harvard shirts. I bought that and I wore it,” she said. “And she got really mad.”

Maerzke served as an intelligence specialist during her time in the Corps. Starting on a non-deployable unit, 1st Marine Division, Headquarters Battalion, she was eventually chosen to be one of the first people to integrate women into the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, an infantry group with a long history.

“When I showed up, I think I was the third female there, and the other two were an officer and a staff NCO,” she said.

After leaving the Marines in 2020, Maerzke spent three semesters, two of them online, at Columbia. Not the right fit, she set her sights on Harvard, and studying government.

“Working in intel, I guess I was very interested in international relations … And I love the classes. It’s awesome. Just being around all these incredibly intelligent faculty. And I’m very grateful for the opportunity,” she said. “And it’s also really awesome for me to see Harvard accepting more and more vets.”

When she’s not in class, Maerzke can often be found atop a horse during polo practice.

“I really love that,” she said.

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