Leah McGowan enlisted in the Army when she was 19, temporarily leaving behind her young son so she could complete basic training.
In the 10 years since, the 29-year-old Northridge resident has worked as a mental health specialist with the Army, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA, was commissioned in the officer corps, joined the National Guard and quickly rose to the rank of first lieutenant, works with homeless veterans for the Veterans Administration, and is now about to receive her master’s degree in social work from Cal State Northridge.
McGowan’s dedication and hard work have earned her California State University, Northridge’s first Outstanding Graduating Veteran Award, which is given to a student demonstrating meritorious achievement, strength of character and commitment to service..
“While the award recognizes the unique challenges veteran students have to overcome to reach this academic milestone, it also provides an opportunity for the campus community to remember and honor those individuals who could not complete degrees because their health or lives were sacrificed in national service,” said biology professor Stan Metzenberg, a member of the award selection committee.
The campus has more than 400 student veterans, according to CSUN Veteran Coordinator Phyllis Gilson, and many have returned from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Student veterans are a special group because they often postpone their educations for national service, or have had to fit their academic schedules around overseas deployments.
“Our veteran students are a source of pride at the university, and we take great pleasure in their academic accomplishments and continuing services to the community,” said Harry Hellenbrand, provost and vice president for academic affairs.
Metzenberg said choosing a finalist for the Outstanding Graduating Veteran Award was hard, given the caliber of the students nominated.
The finalists included former Marine David Roberts, a mathematics major who has conducted research alongside a CSUN math professor and intends to pursue a doctoral degree in mathematics; former Marine Sgt. Elmer Solis, who is earning an interdisciplinary master’s degree in gerontology and kinesiology and found and first president of CSUN’s Student Veteran Organization; airman Brian Meadows, who is getting a bachelor’s degrees in computer engineering and applied mathematics; airman David Otis, who is receiving his bachelor’s degree in biology and leaving this fall for
Western University of Health Sciences to study to become an osteopathic physician; and former Army Reserves Sgt. Jayme Alilaw, who has been studying opera and will be getting her master of music degree in vocal performance.
Leah McGowan credits her parents, Arvin McGowan, Jr., and Virginia McGowan, with helping her achieve all that she has so far. She said they often stepped in to look after her son when military demands took too much of her time. She said her father, an Air Force veteran, is the driving force behind her military career.
“When I was little, he would talk to me about the military and really encouraged me to join up. He had this idea, even before I joined, that I needed to become an officer. He said that even when I was a teenager, I needed to be a leader,” she said.
Her next step, McGowan said, is to get a doctorate and rise to a position in the military where she can influence policies that deal with the mental health and wellbeing of soldiers in military service and veterans returning home from combat. Goals she has no doubt she will be able to accomplish.
“In the military, when you are told to make something happen, you pretty much make it happen,” she said. “ The military gives me a mission, I do it. It’s the same with whatever else I set out to do with my life.”
She will receive her degree during the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ commencement ceremony at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, May 19.