Serving female veterans

Cabezas in a cargo plane flying over Afghanistan.

Veteran Anais Cabezas ’15 was having a difficult time reassimilating to civilian life. But she found help through the Focus Forward Fellowship at Purdue University.

According to fellowship director Lauren Runco, a 2015 Purdue Gallup survey indicated that female veterans “have expressed challenges with transition to higher education.” For example, many had difficulty relating to other students. Focus Forward is designed to address that and other issues head on.

Cabezas and fellow veteran and FIU graduate student Jasmine Flloyd spent four days in Indianapolis over the summer participating in team building exercises, developing new skills and learning how to apply skills gained in the service to civilian life. While there, Cabezas formed invaluable connections with other women who share similar experiences and was able to speak candidly about the difficulties of life after the military.

Cabezas biggest challenge was learning how to be a more open, friendly person, an aspect of her personality she says she “tamed” in deployment in order to be more “military like.”

“I try to set boundaries and not get so close to people. But everyone at the fellowship was just so open and willing to be close, so it pushed me to become comfortable with that again and realize that no one is going to think any less of me.”

Cabezas operating a crane as part of her training in Virginia.

She was a part of the Navy reserves and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 where she built houses and hospitals. After spending seven months overseas, she re-enrolled at FIU as an undergraduate psychology student. But returning to the classroom was not easy. For one, having been out of school for close to a year, she had to re-teach herself how to study.

At times, Cabezas found herself so overwhelmed with all the changes she wished she could drop out and go back overseas.

“The first couple of semesters, I was not very involved in student activities,” she said. “It was hard for me to relate to other students since they have not had the same life experiences as I had.”

For the veterans who attended the fellowship, the four-day residency was not the end of the program. During the academic year, they will continue to connect with their cohort through an online learning component. The women will engage in discussion posts, listen to lectures given by mentors, continue to build on the skills they developed over the summer and nurture the relationships they formed with their fellow veterans.

According to Michael Pischner, the director of FIU Veteran and Military Affairs, 1,312 veterans are currently enrolled at FIU, 227 of whom are female.

Cabezasis currently working on her master’s in vocational rehab and mental health counseling and taking the steps necessary to bring a program like the fellowship to FIU.

“Women veteran are underserved in this population,” she expressed. “I think it would be amazing for our women veterans at FIU to have this experience and to be able to connect with people like them.”