Catching Wave After Wave

USD PhD student and assistant director of military and veteran services Caroline Walsh.


The one thing college provides undergraduates is four years of a certain type of stability. Get to class on time, do the work and you’ll likely be all right. But once graduation draws near, fear can set in. What will I do next with my life?

For Caroline Walsh ’24 (PhD) that anxiety was exacerbated by the 2008 recession. Her bachelor’s degree in psychology didn’t exactly put a lot of options at her fingertips. She was working two jobs that paid by the hour, but it wasn’t what she’d envisioned.

“I had to think, ‘Even if I’m OK financially, how will this get me to my master’s degree?’” Walsh recalls. “I think my generation has become very cautious about how much debt we’re getting into.”

As she processed her options, two of her girlfriends told her they crossed paths with a Coast Guard recruiter while surfing in Ventura. The pair planned to enlist and encouraged Walsh to join them. Unsure, Walsh decided to go out for a surf session with the recruiter. As they bobbed up and down waiting for waves, they chatted about life in the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).

“He was very honest. I feel like recruiters try to get you on these gimmicky things like you’re going serve your country and be a hero. He told me, ‘Yeah, you’ll be doing rescues and it’ll be cool, but the real deal is you’re going to live by the coast and you’re going to have this ID to all the best surfing spots.’ 

An all-access pass to the best surfing spots in the country sounded like a great deal. By 2009, Walsh shipped off to New Jersey to begin bootcamp and find the stability she was looking for. Her first duty station was in Montauk, Long Island. As someone who primarily grew up in Ohio and spent her undergraduate years in California, Walsh didn’t know much about the place, which sat about 100 miles away from New York City.

Unfortunately, she quickly found out that this particular unit was plagued by poor leadership and an overall “toxic” work environment, especially for women. 

“It’s still so difficult to be a woman in these organizations,” says Walsh, who has made a point of working to support active-duty women. “Caring about people makes a huge difference as a leader.” She was able to break away from the unit to start a new USCG journey and moved to Yorktown, Virginia, to train as an intelligence specialist, which was the reason she initially enlisted. 

Using tuition assistance, she earned her master’s degree in homeland security from Pennsylvania State University in 2013. Her final paper analyzed research across cultures to identify healthcare workers’ concerns regarding response during a pandemic. Her findings proved to be accurate amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She eventually moved on from the USCG entirely and became a CIA intelligence officer. 

“I loved the job, which was intellectually stimulating. I got to use my creativity to think about things we hadn’t tried yet and it was a positive work environment.”

It was during this time that Walsh began testing out her hand at stand-up comedy. While in Washington D.C., she attended an open-mic night and thought to herself, ‘I could do this.’ She reached out to a representative with the Armed Services Arts Partnership, which helps veterans thrive through the visual arts, writing and comedy, and signed up for a comedy bootcamp.

“I showed up to the first class and everyone was really loud and really funny, and I thought, ‘Oh gosh, what am I doing here?’ Then I ended up having a really good set. I realized you don’t have to be extroverted to write good comedy and perform it.” 

The 5-minute set she wrote inspired her to write a memoir, Fairly Smooth Operator: My Life Occasionally at the Tip of the Spear. Although the book has comedic moments, it also addresses serious topics such as sexual harassment. The CIA also had to vet her book before it was published. Luckily, there was only one minor suggestion: “One of my managers at the CIA said I could’ve been more creative and described his six-pack abs,” Walsh laughs.

Now a graduate student at USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences, she expects to earn her PhD in a few years. Walsh is also an assistant director of military and veteran service and compliance for USD’s Military and Veterans Program. In that role, she helps assist military-connected students with programming, certifying benefits and career guidance. 

Where life takes Walsh next may presently be up in the air, but it’s safe to bet it will include one thing: a prime surf break. — Kelsey Grey ’15 (BA)

One Response
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *