A trailblazer for women in the military, professor Lissa V. Young shared the ups and downs of her life story during a keynote speech at the RegentAtlantic Wall Street Women Forum.
Young, now an assistant professor of leadership and management in the department of behavioral sciences and leadership at the United States Military Academy (USMA), entered the USMA at West Point in 1982, two years after women were first being graduated from the legendary institution.
She decided to keep her head down and stay under the radar, but that changed when she was offered a leadership opportunity at Camp Buckner, an “all-male bastion” of summer training that all sophomore cadets have to muster.
“My immediate thought was I’m going to be visible, everyone’s going to be staring at me, everyone’s going to hate me, I don’t want to do it,” she recalled. “My second thought was, hell yes I want to do that. I excelled at Buckner as a sophomore and had a blast.”
Young also saw an opportunity to help “reshape” the relationship between the Academy and incoming cadets still rattled by a difficult first year. “I thought, if I could have a positive influence on those rising sophomores, then I really wanted the opportunity to have that impact,” she said.
A literature major, Young came across a quote from 19th-century French author Emile Zola that became a mantra for her: ‘If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I will answer you: I am here to live out loud.ʼ
“I realized that being visible was the source of a tremendous amount of power and influence,” she said. “And I realized that I needed to own that, own my visibility and not apologize for being a woman at West Point.”
Young spent the next two decades finding success in the military, notably as one of the early cohorts of women in flight school flying helicopters, something she later taught, and as one of a select few chosen for an advanced position flying helicopters in Alaska, where she was responsible for rescuing people from remote locations, such as Mt. Denali.
In the midst of her acclaimed military career, Youngʼs advancement was cut short when a colleague reported her for being gay during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” era, which was eventually repealed in 2011.
Young was pulled out of her job and interrogated, and saw her dreams of being the first female graduate dean of West Point shattered. Two weeks later, she was kicked out of the military, losing her retirement and her benefits. She was 40 years old.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do, I had been in the military forever,” she said. “I didn’t know how to deconstruct my identity as an army officer, a leader of character, an aviator, and then reconstruct myself into something else. I didn’t want to be anything else.”
After a two-month period of “feeling sorry for herself,” she decided to see her situation as an opportunity to reinvent herself. “That voice was so wimpy, but I knew it was right,” she said.
After a couple of years selling air traffic control systems in the United Arab Emirates, she tried to get a job at West Point. They told her she would need to have a PhD, so she applied to 20 grad schools, all of which rejected her.
Soon after, during a talk at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, she happened to meet David Gergen, a former presidential advisor and professor at the Kennedy School who encouraged her to apply to graduate school there. She did, and was selected as a presidential scholar for the education school.
After getting her PhD, she was finally hired at West Point in 2013, and is now a permanent faculty member.
“It absolutely is my dream job, I’m having a blast, I’ve got a lot of scars, but I’m as happy as I can be,” she said. She has even started an entrepreneurship program at the school.
“I really tend to believe that leadership is a dynamic, and it requires us as leaders to be very fluid and adaptable and high self-monitors,” she said. “I think you have to be mindful about what are the experiences that you want to create for this team or these individuals with whom you’re working, that will stretch them.”
She said teaching young people is what keeps her going.
“When you walk into a classroom and engage the intellectual curiosity of a young person, and you have the opportunity and honor to help shape that intellectual growth, there’s just no better job on the planet.”