GS Student and Navy Veteran Works to Support Social Justice and Women Veterans at Columbia
Randee Howard was born and raised in the South Side of Chicago, and after her parents’ separation, her mother, an immigrant from Belize, became her primary caregiver. Throughout high school, Howard worked hard to excel and was active in a junior bowling league until her family’s financial hardships prompted her to trade in the bowling pins for hours working at Subway. Despite the struggle of balancing the demands of work, school, and extracurriculars, Howard performed well academically and was accepted to Spelman College.
At this historically Black college (HBCU) for women, which Howard describes as her dream school, she enjoyed her newfound social freedom and the courses she was taking. Without financial support from her family, however, Howard’s freedom was short lived, and she was forced to drop out during her sophomore year.
She returned to Chicago defeated, with plans to attend a more affordable college in her home state. Unfortunately, financial issues, once again, played a part in Howard’s ability to enroll at DePaul University, and she was only able to enroll part time. To earn extra income, she found a position at a local grocery store. Howard describes running into previous teachers who shopped at the store during this time and would inquire about how school was going. This served only as a reminder of what she viewed as her failures.
“I had hit rock bottom, and the younger me viewed myself as a failure because I had not yet learned how to process situations that were outside of my control,” said Howard.
Deeply unhappy with her circumstances, she decided to speak with a recruiter about enlisting in the military.
“I was feeling extremely stagnant, and I knew that I had a greater purpose and that I was wasting my potential and time. After our initial meeting, I felt a spark return in my life, and I began to focus on preparing for bootcamp,” said Howard.
Howard left for training in May 2014, joining the Navy as an aviation electrician on H-60S helicopters stationed on Naval Base Coronado in San Diego, CA. She had no previous maintenance experience and, early on, was nicknamed ‘Hardware Howard’ because she frequently dropped things. She later deployed on USS Makin Island (LHD-8) in 2016 to Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
“I am proud to have served my country; however, it was not easy. I had many breakdowns during and after my time in service from negative experiences that I still deal with today. It was difficult being a minority, female maintainer when my senior leadership did not represent that,” said Howard. “Yet, you grow and develop the most tenacity and grit during the most difficult circumstances.”
From my experience, women in the military are often in an environment where, unfortunately, they are not viewed as equal. It can also be an environment where our opinions and voices aren't entirely heard or welcomed... This aspect of military culture is not welcomed at GS. We are viewed as equals and we have a voice that the GS community wants to hear.
After separating from the service, Howard began working as a technical writer at General Atomics, producing electrical manuals for unmanned aircraft. She also worked part-time as a real estate agent in California, and began to tutor and mentor youth on probation through an organization called Reality Changers in San Diego.
Though she was making strides in her career and found meaning in her volunteer work, after a while, Howard began to experience feelings of stagnation, similar to those she had before enlisting in the military. She still felt pulled to pursue higher education, and after sharing her thoughts with a childhood friend who had attended Barnard, she learned about the School of General Studies (GS). Howard’s friend encouraged her to apply, knowing her story and experience as a veteran was compelling, but despite her achievements, Howard was hesitant.
“When I heard the name Columbia, I initially doubted if my application would be considered. It was the encouragement from my childhood friend that led me to GS—the power of having the right individuals in your circle! I didn’t tell anyone else I was applying until after I sent my application, and I didn’t tell my parents until I was accepted,” said Howard.
I love the resources that GS provides to nontraditional students to ensure their success at Columbia. I would not have passed my first semester without the Academic Resource Center (ARC) and the veteran community on campus.
She enrolled at GS in the spring of 2019, and found her first semester at Columbia to be extremely difficult as she transitioned out of the military, navigated the rigorous course load, and adjusted to New York City. Howard credits her success to the military for preparing her to push through difficult times, as well as to the resources at GS that provided her with necessary support.
“I love the resources that GS provides to nontraditional students to ensure their success at Columbia. I would not have passed my first semester without the Academic Resource Center (ARC) and the veteran community on campus,” said Howard. “I have also used Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) faithfully since October 2019, and I enjoy telling people about how beneficial counseling has been for my health.”
In addition to academic support services, after an initial introduction during veteran-specific orientation programming to the board members of the U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University (MilVets) and Dean David Keefe, Senior Assistant Dean of Student Veteran Initiatives at GS, Howard made an effort to connect with the veteran community at Columbia. She attended veterans-focused events, those organized for women in particular, and focused on developing relationships with members of MilVets.
Howard built a connection with Rachel Ballew ’20GS, who served as the MilVets women veterans representative in 2018-2019. When Ballew became the first female president of the organization, she urged Howard to take the open role of the women veterans representative, which Howard eagerly accepted.
“From my experience, women in the military are often in an environment where, unfortunately, they are not viewed as equal. It can also be an environment where our opinions and voices aren't entirely heard or welcomed,” said Howard. “The women’s veterans representative role is important to show our women veterans, and ensure within the MilVets community, that this aspect of military culture is not welcomed at GS. We are viewed as equals and we have a voice that the GS community wants to hear,” said Howard.
In her role with MilVets, Howard is responsible for planning engaging events that allow women veterans to come together and feel a sense of inclusion and belonging on campus. These events serve as a safe space to discuss the unique experiences of transitioning back to civilian life and into higher education after service as women.
Beyond her role in the veteran community at Columbia, Howard was also encouraged by her academic advisor to get involved with social justice initiatives and was connected with the Center for Justice on campus. Before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the program, Howard volunteered for the Center’s Justice-in-Education (JIE) Initiative.
I have had tremendous opportunities at GS that I never thought I would be a part of and that have pushed me outside of my comfort zone. If you’re considering GS, do not talk yourself out of applying. Take the chance.
“Through JIE, a nonfiction writing course was offered to incarcerated women inside of Rikers Island, and I commuted there every Friday to tutor the women and assist with developing their reading and writing skills,” said Howard. “That experience has been my most rewarding experience at Columbia and engaging with the women was the best part of my week.”
Howard will graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in urban studies. She recently accepted an offer with AllianceBernstein, an investment management firm, as a private wealth associate, and she plans to continue her involvement in the veterans community and social justice initiatives.
“I have had tremendous opportunities at GS that I never thought I would be a part of and that have pushed me outside of my comfort zone,” says Howard. “If you’re considering GS, do not talk yourself out of applying. Take the chance.”