People of SU

From Combat Boots to the Classroom

Written by Andrew Binion

March 20, 2023

Graphic featuring two photos of student vets as part of Women's History Month.
Fanny Vaca, '23, and Tea’Ayanna Garvey

Women veterans drawn to Seattle University first found their way in the military.

In celebrating Women’s History Month, The Newsroom is spotlighting women making a difference in their industries, communities and beyond. In this installment we feature students Tea’Ayanna Garvey and Fanny Vaca, who were members of the military.

For Tea’Ayanna Garvey, a pre-health anthropology major with a minor in biology, her interest in medicine started when she was 7 years old. But as she neared the end of high school in West Palm Beach, Florida, she wasn’t sure of her next move. 

Raised by a single mother from Jamaica, Garvey felt divided between her Jamaican roots and the country she calls home and wanted to learn more about the U.S. and the world. Days after graduating from high school she took the enlistment oath and shipped out for basic training in the Army.

“I wanted to do something that would give me experience in some fast-paced settings, allow me to think under pressure and allow me to get my hands dirty,” she says.

Attending community college near her home in Coral Springs, Florida, while working at a fast-food restaurant, Fanny Vaca, ‘23, found herself getting squeezed between trying to pay her way in the world and keep her grades up.

Her sister had become interested in joining the Navy, which planted the idea in Vaca’s mind.

“At the time I felt like I couldn't do both at the same time,” she says of work and school. “The Navy, the military overall, offered me the opportunity to, in the future, go back to school without having to worry about paying for it.”

Vaca and Garvey are two of the more than 3 million women who since the American Revolution have served in the armed forces. In 2021, women made up more than 17 percent of the active-duty force (totaling 231,741 members) and more than 21 percent of the National Guard and reserves (171,000 members), according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

One benefit available to qualifying veterans, which both Vaca and Garvey use, is the tuition and other financial education assistance through the GI Bill, a program initiated after World War II to help returning service members adjust to civilian life.

Last year, 280 SU student veterans used GI Bill benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

After nearly nine years in the Navy—split between active and reserve duty—Vaca left the armed services in 2022.

Working in the bowels of the aircraft carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS George Washington, among grease and hefty tools, while maintaining the massive elevators used to hoist fighter jets to the flight deck, might have something to do with why Vaca likes the sparkling sterility of a laboratory.

Majoring in Criminal Justice, Vaca picked Seattle University for two reasons: the small class sizes where she could get to know her instructors in the program and the option to specialize in forensic science, the kind police detectives use to solve difficult criminal cases (she is also minoring in biology and chemistry).  

In addition to her studies, Vaca works as a lab aide for Benaroya Research Institute on a team composed of almost all women, something she takes pride in. Post-graduation, she is looking to work in a law enforcement lab like the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab.

“The fact that they help solve the crime and bring closure to families lit a spark in me,” Vaca says. “I like that. I want to help people in that sense.”

For her three-and-a-half years in the Army, Garvey worked as a health care specialist, which included combat medic training and a year at an overseas duty station in South Korea.

The personal transformation she underwent while a soldier was dramatic, but it took time. At first, she says she struggled with the physical challenges, then a bout of pneumonia during boot camp required her to start over with a new cohort. But with the support of her fellow soldiers, she not only adjusted but excelled.

“Before basic training I would only say that I was a team player but afterwards I knew what it meant to actually be one,” she says. “I learned to work.”

The pre-health major, who is minoring in biology, prepared her for the next step following her service—moving to Seattle. After attending the UW she transferred to SU, preferring the more personalized education that comes with smaller class sizes. 

Garvey has also embraced campus life and earlier this year founded the Caribbean and Latin American Student Society, or CLASS, of which she serves as president. Garvey and the club’s officers are planning to bring a Carnival celebration to SU. After graduation she plans to attend medical school.

Garvey finds the skills she learned in the military helped give her confidence. “That’s what really helps me in the classroom, in discussions and working with others,” she says.