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GradTerps Vet Sara Owens Finds Connection, Community at UMD

November 26, 2019

Behavioral and Community Health doctoral student Sara Olsen, UMD MPH '17, PhD '21, was the student veteran speaker at Honor and Remember, a Veteran's Day Service held at Memorial Chapel on Monday, November 11.

Olsen, a Navy Commander and 17-year combat veteran, hesitates to receive gratitude on Veterans Day. 

"Many Veterans struggle with a response, for a variety of reasons. For me, it is because I volunteered," she said. "Our military is an all volunteer service and even though there are sacrifices inherent in that line of work, it felt like thanking me somehow diminished or failed to acknowledge that there are a lot of professions statistically more dangerous or that require just as strong of a sense of service above self."

Olsen chooses to use the Veterans Day recognition as an opportunity to spread understanding of military service to those outside of it. Responding to "thank you" with "My pleasure" feels more authentic to her, and opens the door to talking about what her service meant to her. 

"I take others' celebration and appreciation of Veterans' service as an opportunity to connect and educate those that might not otherwise have a personal connection to military service," Olsen said, adding that her speech focused on "connection and bridging the gap between military and civilian life experiences through higher education." 

In her Veteran's Day remarks, Olsen shared that she kept her service to herself when she arrived in the School of Public Health, expecting judgment and unwanted questions from her classmates.

"I kept my head down, did my assignments, and focused on checking the box so I could move on," she said. "I didn't engage with fellow learners or campus activities. I was actually very comfortable isolating myself. I was here to get a degree, and those relationships weren't necessary to accomplish that goal." 

Then one day, she chose to wear her uniform to class, fresh from a meeting at the Pentagon, rather than be late or skip. Her classmates' response was a welcome surprise. 

"They asked me where I served and where I was stationed, what I did in the Navy, what I liked and didn't like," she said. "They wanted to get to know me as a person, and the uniform was the first opportunity I'd given them to do that. It was also my opportunity to learn the similarities we had across backgrounds and generations. My perspective was transfomed that day. I was no longer just attending classes; I was part of the School of Public Health." 

Sara's commitment to personal connection came to life in Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance, a nonprofit she co-founded whose mission is to increase inclusion in sport and fitness opportunities for people with disabilities.  

"We do this through competition, community development, and education," she said. "The education piece is our largest arm; we hold seminars to enable fitness and medical professionals to communicate with, assess and program for adaptive athletes." 
Community matters to Olsen now on campus as well. 
"That shift in identity and belonging was huge," she said. "That was one of the reasons I was really excited to be here to celebrate the anniversary of the GI Bill, because i believe taking advantage of it isn't just about getting that degree. It's not just about checking that box. It's about making a connection, and really what's more human in this world than that?" 
Find Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance on Facebook at CrossroadsAlliance, and on Twitter and Instagram @CrossroadsAAA, all with the hashtag #adaptlife. Watch the Honor and Remember Veteran's Day service on YouTube. Sara's remarks begin at 17:20. 
Image credit: Stephanie S. Cordle 

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