Going back to school as a non-traditional student in your mid-50s doesn’t have to be traumatic, even if you’ve encountered a good deal of trauma up to that point.
For Elizabeth Webb ’23, a Multidisciplinary Studies major in pursuit of her BA, a rich catalog of real-world life experiences has taught her a great deal, but she continues to learn from fellow students who are just beginning their life’s journey.
“At Stony Brook I’m finding that the best teachers are not necessarily my own age but the younger students,” said Webb. “They’re the ones who are teaching me more about how to communicate with people than anyone else. The caliber of the students Stony Brook accepts is fabulous.”
Webb has a boatload of life lessons to pass along to young women, having served in the U.S. Navy as an air traffic controller, intelligence specialist, Seabee (Naval Construction Battalion), career counselor, sharpshooter and someone who volunteered for the most difficult assignments, including operating the heaviest and most complex equipmen, from Humvees to 15-ton trucks.
The Selden, New York, native served three years of active duty before remaining a Naval Reservist for the ensuing 15 years, which included a tour of duty as project manager, architect/engineer, AutoCAD operator, and one of the camp facility leadersat Camp Arifjan, Kuwait in 2006.
Concentrating on such diverse subjects as mathematics, material sciences and engineering and creative writing at Stony Brook requires a large bandwidth, neurologically speaking.
Webb jokingly traces her well-connected left and right brain hemispheres, or concurrent creative and analytical thinking, to “a long line of Italian masters.” From an uncle — a master ironworker who helped build the Twin Towers, the Shoreham nuclear power plant and Stony Brook University Hospital — to a grandfather who was a master carpenter and a great-grandfather who was a master mason, Webb inherited the ability to “put things together and take them apart.”
Webb is also musical; she played the bassoon at Newfield High School — where she rebuilt her own instrument — and then studied music at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, for a summer where she learned to make her own reeds.
A singer as well, Webb has performed in everything from the Seabee Ball to the Long Island Chorale at the Unitarian Church in Stony Brook to singing soprano in the gospel choir in Kuwait. “It was my spontaneous sanity,” she said. “Wherever my boots landed, I sang.”
Webb was a freshman at Marietta College in 1983 when a hazing incident left her at a crossroads. She chose to join the military, following the footsteps of her father, who was a Navy Corpsman for the Marines.
Scoring well on her Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, Webb chose nuclear engineer as her rate (Navy term for specialty) and when that wasn’t available, she opted for the next most challenging rate, air traffic controller. After serving as a radar controller at the U.S. Naval Station in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, she went on to flight data and radar controller at U.S. Naval Air Stations in Barbers Point, Hawaii and Glenview, Illinois.
While in Hawaii she met and married her husband. While he stayed in the military, she ended her active duty with the Navy and continued to drill with the reserves. He got transferred to Green Bay, Wisconsin and she joined him.
“While I was in Green Bay, my husband left me with two babies, no job, no anything.”
Ever resilient, she earned an associate of science degree in architectural technology at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, where she was an Honor Graduate.
Picking up the pieces of her life, she waitressed, went to school full-time, and drilled with the reserves, eventually returning to Long Island to work as a civil engineering technician and survey drafter at a Hauppauge firm for three years.
In 2006, her Seabee battalion was activated but she received orders to go along with a small group of engineers to Kuwait.
“I was the only woman,” she recalled. Initially, she was utilized as a “gopher” for the men, until one officer learned of her background. This commander used her attention to detail and agility to inspect hundreds of pods stacked four stories high that were supposed to be sleeping quarters for the officers.
On her rounds, she spied three hollow-tipped military bullets jammed in a window designed to fire and shatter the glass when the window was closed.
“If they had gone off, they would not have found me for days,” Webb said. “I didn’t feel fear in a situation like that, just heightened awareness almost to the point of paranoia. An adrenalin rush that produced an instant high.”
Webb faced perhaps her greatest challenge after suffering a traumatic brain injury in 2016 that cost her much of her short-term memory as well as her ability to sing in pitch. Cognitive tests demonstrated that she went from a first-grade to a ninth-grade level from 2016 to 2018, and it took her until 2020 to reach college-level cognition.
“I couldn’t even add on my fingers and had to ask my daughter, who has a Stony Brook degree in linguistics, how to use a comma,” said Webb.
Webb has fought to do the things she was good at and wanted to do in male-dominated occupations when women were still not treated as equals and overcame widely accepted stereotypical beliefs. Add to this what she half-kiddingly refers to as the many strikes against her — being female, smart and petite — and the old saying applies; dynamite really does come in small packages.
— Glenn Jochum