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USC women combat stereotypes about their service

Lauryn Riley, Christine Bassitt, Stephanie Soltis and Casey Whitson discuss women in the military. (USC Photo/Lillian Insalata)

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” said Stephanie Soltis, a U.S. Air Force veteran and MBA candidate at the USC Marshall School of Business. “We need to try to contribute, to give back.”

Soltis was one of nine speakers at “Women Who Have Served,” the April 9 installment of the monthly Campus Conversation Series sponsored by the Office of Campus Activities, part of the Division of Student Affairs. In collaboration with Transfer and Veteran Student Programs, the event featured a panel of female USC students who either have served or are currently serving in the military.

For an hour, the nine young women shared their personal and professional experiences, struggles and achievements within the armed forces. Though they hailed from diverse branches of the military, including the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, there were common threads linking their experiences. Many spoke of the innate desire to serve that led them to enlist; others joined the armed forces to support and honor their veteran family members.

Christina Mireles, program manager for Campus Activities and moderator of the event, began the conversation by asking the panelists questions about their most obvious shared experience — that of being a woman in uniform. The panelists detailed the prejudices they had fought against, including rumors about dating for promotions, accusations of weakness and male disregard for their achievements. However, they also explained how hard work and dedication helped them break through those barriers.

“Once people got to know me, they realized I was the real deal,” said Sarah Questell, an active Marine Corps member and Middle East studies major. “I was there because I excelled at my job, and I was a hard worker.”

Lauryn Riley, a military police officer and JD candidate at the USC Gould School of Law, had similar sentiments.

“As a cadet dealing with my peers, I had to make sure they understood I was there on my merit,” she said. “There was not a drop in the quality of the work because I was a woman.”

The female veterans even managed to find humor in exasperating situations.

Charlsie Hoffman, a former Marine and international relations (global business) major, joked about a male fellow service member who tried to impress her, thinking she was a civilian.

“He said, ‘You’ll never guess what I do. I work for the president,’ ” she recalled, imitating his bravado.

Hoffman had replied, “Wow! Me, too!”

The panelists described how these annoyances and challenges ultimately led them to become more resilient, proficient servicewomen. They spoke of how difficulties endured in the field and in combat gave them incomparable strength of character and confidence.

“There’s nothing that’s ever going to scare you again,” Soltis said. “In the business school, we hear from others how overwhelming it is, but no one is going to live or die based on any decision you make. It provides a much bigger, global, zoomed-out perspective.”

The panelists’ perspectives zoomed out even further when an audience member stood to speak to them. After thanking them for their service, she revealed that in 1980, she graduated from the Naval Academy in the first class that included women.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said to the panelists. “You’re beautiful women, and you’re serving your country in such a gracious way. My son is in the Navy, and I’m so proud that he will be working with such great women.”

The event closed on that high note — one of heartfelt gratitude toward veterans. Audience members were left with the singular message that women in armed forces should be given their due honor and respect from those inside and outside the military.

As Riley put it, “Any leader that’s worth their salt is going to see a Marine, a soldier,” she said. “They’re not going to see male or female. At the end of the day, you are a service member.”

USC women combat stereotypes about their service

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