Military veteran joins sororityBy Kyarra Harris | 09/15/2016 6:42am
Photo courtesy of Rachel Thornton
When Rachel Thornton graduated high school in Eugene, Oregon she had no idea of what she wanted to do next. Nearly 10 years later, she has served in the Air Force, has become the first veteran to rush in a sorority at Alabama and the first female president of the Campus Veterans Association.
Thornton is a 27-year-old freshman at the University majoring in Civil Engineering, but for the six years prior, she was an active duty member of the Air Force.
“I remember seeing the recruiters in high school and thinking I would never join the military, but I ended up joining the Air Force,” Thornton said. “When I called my dad and told him, and he was like ‘What? Really? Why?’ I was at a point in my life where I was just working, no school. I told myself I should do something for somebody else, because I wasn’t doing anything for myself. It could have been anything, but Air Force came first.”
During her service she ranked up every year, obtained 2 associates degrees and became fluent in Arabic. At the end of those six years she decided to come back to school. Thornton said the decision was something she thought about for a while.
“I took a lot of people off guard when I left, but I got similar reactions when I joined, so it’s kind of my move,” Thornton said.
While being stationed in Mississippi, Thornton said she fell in love with the city of Biloxi, and that inspired her choice to attend a southern school.
“I loved the weather,” Thornton said. “When I realized I wanted to get out of the Air Force, I looked at my options, it was super new. I applied to all the schools with good engineering programs down south, but even after I got acceptance letters, I had doubts. I asked myself, ‘am I really going to quit my career and go to school?’ In the end, everything just worked.”
Coming back to the civilian world was a new experience for Thornton. Without the comfort of the military, Thornton said she was nervous.
“Every day for the last 6 years I wore a uniform,” Thornton said. “With the military, I knew everything ahead of time. I knew what uniform to wear, how to wear my hair and things I can and can’t do. It’s overwhelming. Freedom isn’t free because anyone in service is not. They have to give up a lot of their freedoms for everyone else. Now that I’m actually free, I don’t know how to do so many things.”
So Thornton reached out to the military community and got involved with Veteran Affairs.
“They literally took me under their wing and taught me everything they could. Then someone elected me as president of the CVA, so I am the first female president. It’s nice because you want to talk to people who you don’t have to explain the military to. So if we can provide a space for people who don’t want to go home yet, then that’s good.”
Will Suclupe, VITAL program coordinator for the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center, has an office located on campus and works very closely with the University’s veteran affairs program. He said Thornton has become a great asset to the VA community on campus.
“I could tell that she was a leader and someone who wanted to get involved on campus here,” Suclupe said. “Rachel has a really positive attitude and is an overall go-getter. She fits very well with the community.”
Thornton also joined Lean On Alabama, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that helps women in leadership roles. There she met Marsha Grady, vice president of Lean On Alabama.
“I was super nervous to be a part of that group. They are all affiliated with all these different Greek organizations; I felt so out of place. So when I first joined Lean On, I reached out to her [Grady] and told her I want to join a sorority. I’ve always wanted to be in one, but I didn’t have the courage to think I’m good enough for one.”
Thornton said originally thought she was too old. Members of the Lean On organization told her she wasn’t, though she wanted to try regardless.
“I told myself I’d regret it if I didn’t give it a shot, because then I can say I tried. So many people told me I had to be younger than 25,” Thornton said.
She got a bid into Kappa Alpha Theta, though most of the girls thought she was 19.
“I’m just going to let them know my age, I told myself. It’s just my personality. I waited until Chapter, and at announcements I told them I’m a freshman but I’m 27.”
Thornton said the feedback was very positive and welcoming. That night, she received several emails and Facebook messages thanking her for her service, or girls with similar majors asking to study sometime.
“I don’t think that the girls realize how significant their acceptance and support of me is, even when they found out how old I was or that I was in the military,” Thornton said.
Thornton said without the Air Force, she would not have had the courage to join a sorority. Now she said she wants to encourage other veteran women to step out of their comfort zone and be able to support them, similar to her own mentors.
“My opportunities now are endless,” Thornton said. “I could do anything I wanted, and I’m sure I’d run into Greek life. It is really important to me because I didn’t realize how it is shaping my entire college career. Even though I always knew I could always do anything I wanted, now I feel like I could too.”