Latashia White knows firsthand the challenges and opportunities that exist for military veterans who want to pursue their educational goals.
An Air Force veteran, White returned to school after her military service, earning a bachelor’s degree in information technology from the University of Massachusetts Lowell and a master’s degree in social work from Simmons University.
Now the Lowell resident is drawing from that experience as the newly appointed veterans services coordinator at Northern Essex Community College.
While not a requirement for the job, White said she believes being a veteran is an asset to helping students transitioning from military service to campus life.
“It works out better if you are a veteran because other veterans can relate to you and know you understand them, that you come from the same place,” said White, who was stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford for her four-year stint in the Air Force, except for a six-month deployment in Iraq in 2007.
White said from her own success earning college and graduate degrees, she hopes to inspire the student veterans she advises to see their education as “an opportunity to grow and define what you want to do.”
About 100 veterans are typically enrolled each semester at Northern Essex, which has campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence. Based at the college’s Veterans Center on the Haverhill campus, White helps those students apply for veterans’ benefits and address their campus-related questions and concerns, and refers them to needed services.
White is the first veteran who is a woman of color to hold the coordinator’s job, which Northern Essex made a stand-alone position in 2013.
While emphasizing her job is to serve all campus veterans equally regardless of their backgrounds, White said she hopes her appointment could enhance the college’s efforts to promote diversity and “support students of color looking to get college degrees and better themselves.”
White, whose parents both served in the Army — her father as a career — enlisted in the Air Force in 2006, a year after graduating from high school in rural Alabama.
“I wanted the experience of serving and seeing the world,” she said.
In her four years at Hanscom, White rose to become a senior airman, performing a mix of information technology and personnel work. In Iraq, she was part of a security unit that monitored foreign nationals on a US base.
“I enjoyed serving in the military,” she said. “It brings a lot of connections, growth, and understanding about yourself.” Of her time in Iraq, she reflected, “At times it was scary but the overall exposure gave me a different perspective on the world and opened my eyes to a lot of things.”
Enrolling at UMass Lowell a year after her discharge from the service in 2010, she originally envisioned a career in IT or business. But inspired by her experience as a work-study student at the university’s Military and Veterans Services office, she switched gears, deciding she wanted to work with veterans.
Maria Hernandez, director of international student support and special populations at Northern Essex, said White brought the “perfect background” to her new job.
“Within the veterans’ community, there is a sisterhood-brotherhood culture that a non-veteran may never really understand. She brings those experiences, she’s a peer to them.” Hernandez said. “And she’s someone who was in the military and transitioned back to civilian life and academics, which can be difficult. So she brings that experience as well.”
White said she wants to build on the work the college already has done to support its student veterans.
“I want to be innovative and help create positive change for veterans,” she said. “I’m committed to helping them find purpose in whatever is going to make them feel happy and fulfilled.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.