War is scary but so is Grad School

Originally posted on Medium Jan. 20, 2016

Eleven years ago, I was preparing for battle. I had a glimpse of it from the previous weeks of preparation when we would conduct “feints” at the southern edge of Fallujah to manipulate the insurgents to place most of their forces there rather than to the north of the city where we would begin the battle. Small arms fire and mortar rounds were fired in our direction but were highly inaccurate. I could even say that there was a thrill to these events.

Three days later on November 8, 2004, what was thrilling before become very terrifying. During the first push to the edge of the city, our lead vehicle set off a daisy-chain of Improvised Explosive Devices that killed and maimed several infantryman, and I could hear the terror in my fellow Marines’ voices over the radio. These were strong men and they were scared —I was scared. The only way to survive such an extreme as this is to embrace the feeling — to want to go towards the gunfire — to return the feeling of terror.

This is what War does to humans. It is the opposite of empathy — which is why I have probably gravitated to Anthropology and Interaction Design as a civilian because I need to feel connected to humans again.

Ironically, returning to the classroom after four years in the Marines and two tours to Iraq was an intimidating experience. I was afraid that I would be viewed negatively for my service and that I wouldn’t be on the same cognitive level as my new peers, but I quickly learned that wasn’t true. I found that my time in the military helped aid certain discussions and that I was able to perform on the mental level that an anthropology graduate program demanded. During my time in this program, I began to think about humanity’s dependence on the culture of technology, and while I researched this topic for my thesis I became aware of User Experience. I knew that I didn’t want to pursue a Phd, and so I thought that a career in UX would be a pragmatic application of my degree while allowing me to continue to explore the relationships between people and technology.

After taking a User Experience Design class at General Assembly, I knew that I was making the right choice. However, I felt that I needed to gain a broader set of skills before pursuing a career, which is why I am now a student at the Interaction Design Program at the School of Visual Arts. My instructors and fellow students have been challenging me to expand my capabilities which will help me discover the type of designer I want to become.

I want to be able to design interactions for technologies or experiences that help build and support communities, and for me that is very important. I’m not doing this because it’s the hot field to get into right now — I’m doing this because I believe that through design we can improve the value of people’s lives through empathy and inclusion. That is why I want to design.

I did two tours to Iraq while in the Marines, and now I am pursuing my second master’s degree. It never stops being scary, but embracing the fear will always help me to overcome.