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Veteran Katie Wildwood (A&S ’23, M.S. in Commerce ’24) Elevates the Learning Experience

Wildwood's lived experience gained through a variety of roles and experiences in the U.S. Air Force has been a boon to her classmates and strengthened the entire M.S. in Commerce cohort on both an educational and personal level.

Katie Wildwood

It’s easy to understand why Katie Wildwood stands out from many of her grad school peers.

While it’s true that many veteran students do distinguish themselves, she, like other veterans, came to the University having already lived some years as an independent adult with plenty of real-world experiences. And in Wildwood’s case, those experiences were perhaps more intense and wide-ranging than those of others, having lived in locations across the country and around the world, and by assuming a variety of roles as part of the U.S. Air Force.

A native of Garden Grove, CA, Wildwood came to Charlottesville from Las Vegas, where she was stationed for five years. While she admits that she originally didn’t have plans to apply to UVA, she decided to put down stakes and buy a home and focus on getting her degree.

After graduating from the College of Arts & Sciences with degrees in Sociology & Foreign Affairs, she chose to enroll at the Commerce School. It sounds like the decision to pursue a graduate degree at McIntire was a logical next step.

“I’ve always had a business mind,” Wildwood says, explaining that she has had significant exposure to commercial ventures, as both her father and brother are successful entrepreneurs. “I think something my brother and I have in common is that we are more comfortable making decisions rather than following the decisions of others. This is not to say that we can’t work for someone else, but we are both oriented towards leading.”

As an Analyst in U.S. Air Force Operations Intelligence, she had the opportunity to apply her expertise to inform others in specific areas, and according to her classmates in the M.S. in Commerce Program, that natural inclination to lead has shown through to support them and positively impact the classroom.

Learning Special Skills, Navigating New Landscapes

During her more than five years in the military, she served as a Russian Analyst, being trained in Operations Intelligence, where she says she was “a jack of all trades.”

As she and her team learned about the capabilities of many different countries, she was assigned to Russia and became a subject matter expert on the world’s largest nation by area. “My day-to-day job was to study Russian air and missile defense systems,” says Wildwood. That knowledge would become the basis for hourlong presentations she put together to brief pilots from across the U.S. military and those of partner nations. “The whole presentation was built around the question, ‘What would a war with Russia look like for a pilot?’ So, I had to consider all the threats they would possibly face and suggest ways that they could mitigate those threats and be honest when the U.S. didn’t have something to counter emerging technology,” she says.

Wildwood deployed to Afghanistan.

On a completely different mission, Wildwood found herself deployed to Afghanistan and responsible for quickly crafting questions for interrogators to employ when dealing with suspected terrorists apprehended by Special Forces.

“They would give us 24-48 hours’ notice that they captured someone, and I would have to research who we thought this person was that they captured, what we think they did, and create questions on the gaps of what we didn’t know,” she says. Wildwood also worked in prosecution support, which required her to provide a “prosecution support package” to the Afghan legal system, detailing their actions, their methods, the effects of their actions, and recommendations for how the Afghan penal system should prosecute them.

Yet for Wildwood, her best memories from the Air Force are from her deployment to Romania, where she was part of a NATO mission and where, for what had been the first time in years, lived like a civilian, in non-military clothes, with her own apartment and car.

“This kind of opportunity is extremely rare,” she says, although she recalls dealing with unexpected conflict when the “massive gender divide in Romania” caused problems for her, and her work in intelligence was made more difficult when she was partnered with someone who outranked her and “refused to work with a woman.”

But despite that strife, her time there remains a high point of her military career: “I had a blast there. I was able to travel a lot, and I made really good friends with the people I was there with. [It was] definitely a life-changing assignment.”

Leadership and More

Those seminal moments in the military have been a great benefit to Wildwood at McIntire. As she dug into her coursework, she came armed not only with the hands-on experience of tackling high-pressure situations in which she was relied upon by teams in a global context, but also of learning how to rebound from setbacks. She had insight into the benefits and drawbacks of living an independent adult life while figuring out her next moves without a mentor’s guidance and while adapting to and collaborating with people with opposing views.

“The military is all of those things,” she says. “You blend people from all over the world and put them through stressful situations while they endure really hard things like divorce or losing their parents,” Wildwood notes, pointing out that people who represent political opposites or come from extreme poverty are suddenly thrust into circumstances that require them to collaborate and trust one another to advance a larger mission.

On the strength of that background, she freely shares with her M.S. in Commerce cohort those traits that her military time has instilled in her. Wildwood enjoys that the program has people relying on each other to work together, a dedicated but much younger group that shares her goals and focus.

“I’m close to 10 years older than they are and have been through so many different milestones. I try to share those when appropriate and give a different perspective than what the professor provides, and they appreciate that,” she says, adding that her experiences with conflict resolution have also helped groups work through small issues that have arisen.

Her classmates have looked to her leadership and are emphatic about how much she has enhanced their learning.

Finding her to be a motivating force throughout the fall semester, Will Tyndall (M.S. in Commerce ’24) says Wildwood regularly adds to the richness of both course discussions and project execution: “I have learned a lot from her the last few months!”

Fellow Class of ’24 grad students Megan Connors and Owen Coady agree. “She is also always able to bring in some sort of outside information or context, which really helps broaden the scope of the conversation and/or deepen our level of understanding,” Connors says.

Coady states that Wildwood’s “intelligent, calming presence in the classroom” has helped in many ways, including clarifying especially difficult topics by “using examples from her own life, which has made these topics far easier to grasp and understand fully.”

Elizabeth Kilgore (M.S. in Commerce ’24) says Wildwood’s input has been essential. “When Katie speaks in class, you can’t help but turn your head and listen. She brings such an enormous wealth of knowledge, wisdom, experience, and perspective to discussions that I’m convinced she’s lived a million lives. But while Katie’s contributions to class have been remarkable, I think her greatest impact has been outside the classroom.”

Katherine Foley (M.S. in Commerce ’24) counts herself fortunate for having gotten to know her classmate. “We’ve bonded over our love for workout classes and have gone to a few together to release some built-up energy and stress,” Foley says. “Katie’s a real motivator in and outside of the classroom!”

A Positive Influence

In the classroom, Wildwood remarks that she enjoys learning how to make decisions based on data and studying numbers to make decisions in Financial Management with Professor W Ben McCartney, which has proven to be “fun but challenging.” Likewise, recognizing patterns and finding their origins have made Global Strategy and Systems with Professor Ira Harris feel natural for the former Sociology student.

Subject interest aside, she believes it’s important for faculty to understand the veterans in their classes and the great value they bring to the table.

“There is a different mentality with student veterans. As a group, we often struggle with more family issues. I don’t know any student veterans who have a fallback plan or someone who will take care of them if this doesn’t work out. We are dealing with more than just school stress,” she says, adding that veterans are managing time, stress, and multiple projects at the University.

It’s an important distinction, as the result of her lived experience has been a boon to her classmates and strengthened the entire M.S. in Commerce cohort on an educational and personal level. From those we spoke with, it’s obvious that Wildwood has shown herself to be the kind of classmate anyone would hope to have.

“She has a palpable way of making you feel important and heard anytime you speak to her,” Kilgore says. “She is incredibly thoughtful and generous; she even brought me homemade gluten-free cookies because she knew I was gluten-free and might enjoy them. (I did.) I have so much respect and admiration for Katie.”

Coady, who happily watched Wildwood’s dog over fall break, says her presence has bettered the grad school experience for everyone who knows her. “She always provides a smile in early-morning classes and has a fantastic sense of humor, which can make the long class days more entertaining,” he says. “It has been an absolute pleasure to be her classmate and friend.”

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