Mary Kate Soliva proudly served her country in the U.S. Army. A Pacific Islander of CHamoru and European descent, she is now pursuing a Doctor of Criminal Justice degree from Saint Leo University where she is also giving back by serving as president of a student veteran chapter.

Soliva earned her nickname "Mary Kate" from Mary Kate Danaher, a character in the 1950s John Wayne romantic comedy The Quiet Man. She grew up in Maine and graduated from Sacopee Valley High School. Her husband, Nelson, is also an Army veteran who served as a medic. They have a mutt, Spanky, named from The Little Rascals.

Proudly Donning the U.S. Army Uniform

Soliva served in the Army and has 12 years of active service. She says her dad being a 20-year U.S. Navy veteran played a role in her decision to join the military, in addition to a day in history that lit a fire in a generation to want to serve.

"I was in my eighth-grade history class on 9/11 when the first plane hit the World Trade Center tower," she recalls. "We turned on the TV and watched that day unfold. I also remember talking to my dad and his Navy buddies about their camaraderie and how much it meant to them to serve. I decided I wanted to serve in some capacity."

Before her honorable discharge, she was a staff sergeant (E-6) in Bravo Company, 5th Psychological Operations Battalion. Now she serves in the 312th Tactical Psychological Operations Company in the U.S. Army Reserves.

She had several highlights in her military career. She served as a soldier in the 1224th Engineer Support Company in the Guam Army National Guard. She was a healthcare specialist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, MD where she helped the Frederick County Commission for Women establish a human trafficking task force. She later spent time in the Philippines where she interacted with law enforcement and military leaders to help facilitate humanitarian and anti-human trafficking efforts, ultimately leading to a Women in Law Enforcement Symposium recognized by the U.S. embassy in Manila.

"After walking into a certain environment, I always wanted to find ways to make things better. While serving in the Philippines, I tried to empower the local police officers to help them become better servants so they could improve their communities. I always told my soldiers to think outside the box. Oftentimes, the military tells us how to do things, but I encouraged others to seek out new opportunities."

Her last day on active duty was Aug. 21, 2021. However, in addition to her work in the Army Reserves, she continues to serve the veteran and military community as an advocate and mentor. She has also been involved with several veteran service organizations such as Vets2Industry, HillVets, the Leader Transition Institute, The Honor Foundation, Elite Meet, and FourBlock. She has spoken on numerous podcasts and at events to offer advice on the military transition process. Plus, she was recently selected to participate in the Hoover Institution Veteran Fellowship Program through the Hoover Institution and Stanford University, a program designed for veterans who want to influence meaningful change.

"Coming from the military, we're so used to others telling us what our mission is," she explains. "But when we leave, we have to find our own mission and purpose."

Embarking on Higher Education While Serving

Soliva earned a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Guam. During her coursework, she also interned for Sen. Dennis Rodriguez, Jr. of the Guam legislature.

"Through and through, I consider myself a person of service," she explains. "I felt like these degrees would set me up for a career path in which I could give back. I want to be a change-maker who actively listens to the public's concerns in order to help make positive changes in the world."

Why She Chose Saint Leo University for a Doctoral Program

Looking back, she didn't think she'd ever have the opportunity to add a doctoral degree to her resume.

"For a while, I thought a doctoral program was out of reach for me," she confides. "I remember hearing from someone that I couldn't use my military benefits to help pay for a doctoral program. When I saw one of the veteran students in Saint Leo's DCJ program who posted on LinkedIn, I asked if I could have a virtual cup of coffee with him."

That student was Derek Moore, a high-ranking active-duty Marine Corps member.

"He is part of the very 1st cohort for this Doctor of Criminal Justice program. When I got to talk to him, I really valued his experience and insight."

A few other key factors drew her to Saint Leo as well.

"The fact that Saint Leo University is one of the top-ranked military schools was very appealing to me," she says. "I also loved how so many of these faculty members have several decades of experience in the field. It checked all of the boxes for me."

In the fall of 2021, she enrolled in Saint Leo's Doctor of Criminal Justice degree program, opting for the Homeland Security track.

"Choosing this track stems from my background and future goals in the anti-human trafficking space."

Building Early Connections in the Doctorate Program

While this is Soliva's first online degree program, she is grateful for how well all of the students are connected. At the beginning of the fall term, students came together at University Campus for a four-day residency program in which they met each other and the professors who teach the DCJ courses.

"Getting to have those in-person conversations that were 'off the books' and not recorded was amazing. Because we got to meet so many of our classmates in person, we are having deeper discussions and are more comfortable with each other in the virtual learning environment. I can say that I've already hit it off with several classmates, many of whom are connected to the military."

Remarkable Faculty

Soliva says several faculty members have already stood out to her in the Doctor of Criminal Justice program. While on campus, one professor she immediately could relate to was Dr. Karin May.

"She has written about human trafficking and even published a book on it," Soliva says. "She also has 30-plus years of experience in her field. She gave me her phone number within the first half-hour of meeting her. I can tell how supportive she and all of the faculty are. To be able to have intellectual conversations with those who are as passionate as I am about certain subjects is very empowering."

She also enjoyed meeting Drs. Eloy Nunez, a fellow Rotarian, and Robert Diemer.

"Dr. Diemer came out on the first day of the residency and stressed the 'why' about what we want to do as doctoral students. If students don't know why they're pursuing whatever degree it is, they really have to reevaluate themselves."

In addition, she wants to give a big thank-you to Dr. Ernest "Luke" McClees, the former director of Saint Leo's Office of Military Affairs and Services who now has a new role at the university.

"Dr. McClees is a vet with a Ph.D. and has spent hours mentoring other vets who want to pursue higher education," she says. "I have a lot of respect for people who pay it forward like him."

Leading the Student Veterans of America chapter

She says it was McClees who told her about a unique opportunity to lead the Student Veterans of America chapter at Saint Leo. His podcast, "Veterans in Academics," provided Soliva with additional information about higher education.

"He mentioned how the SVA leadership team had mostly all graduated last year. He was looking for someone to take the reins. It didn't take me long to decide to do it, even though my doctoral program is certainly time consuming. This chapter is at the core of what I want to do. If my leadership can help pave the way for others, that's all that matters to me."

She became president of the chapter and is currently assembling her board. Her goal is to start holding chapter meetings twice a month, one of which would focus on fellowship and the other involving having guest speakers talk to members or participating in community activities. While she is leading the group, she wants all members to know that their voices will be heard.

"I want this chapter to be like King Arthur's Round Table. While I'm serving as president, I like to point to the Fifth Law of the Navy which basically says that we are only as strong as our weakest link. We each have something to contribute to make this a great chapter."

Plus, her goal is to connect Saint Leo University's SVA chapter with chapters at other colleges and universities.

"My vision with this chapter is to get students engaged in many opportunities," she explains. "I want to bring lots of fellowship to SVA."

She is hoping to engage with the American Legion to bring veterans of different wars into the chapter to mentor students. She also wants to find sponsors to help chapter members attend the annual Student Veterans of America national conference in Orlando this coming January.

In the end, she encourages all military-connected students attending Saint Leo University to consider joining the SVA chapter.

"Once you hang up your uniform, you're still part of an incredible community. You still have the fellowship of others to lean on, and you can find others with similar stories and experiences with whom you can relate."

Professional Pursuits and Passions

She was recently hired to work as a business development analyst at the Project Management Institute, a global professional organization whose mission is to advance the opportunities for project managers and professionals across a variety of sectors.

"PMI has been around since 1969. They help inspire and empower project management professionals and change-makers around the world. In my role, I am looking forward to bringing PMI offerings to the veteran and military community."

As for long-term goals, she hopes to continue to work on a passion of hers.

"I'd love to be able to influence and implement change in policy regarding human trafficking, especially when it comes to the military. I'm a trained advocate supporting survivors of human trafficking. Regardless of paid roles in my career, I intend to always volunteer my time to help organizations better serve these survivors. I want to be a force multiplier."

Photo credit: The photograph included in this blog article was provided by Mary Kate Soliva and is used with permission.