2018-11-01 / Spotlight

Saluting Retired Marine Mary Fisk

In 1984, Mary Fisk joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Four years later, she became a single parent to her daughter, Kirsten. And for the next couple of decades, she continued to be both a Marine and a mom.

“Don’t ask me how I did it because I don’t know,” she says. “I just did it.”

During her 22-year career in the military, Fisk worked in California, Japan, Cuba, North Carolina and Iraq. She did three tours as a drill instructor — the first time with an 18-month-old. But Fisk never considered leaving the military.

“I love being a Marine so much and I’m the kind of person where I will find a way to make it happen,” she says. “Fortunately I had a very strong circle of friends who helped me out. It’s very much an extended family.”

These days, the retired first sergeant is helping others through her work with the Office of Veterans Programs at Penn State. As the coordinator of veterans outreach, Fisk works to make the veteran-turned-student transition as smooth as possible.

“Coming from the military to not only a civilian environment but an academic civilian environment can be a double whammy for them,” she says. And so the department has adapted to meet the needs of this specific student population.

“We kind of morphed it into a whole process approach. Not just talking to them as applicants but once they get here, what do we do with them? And then how do we support them and how do we make sure, going out the door when they graduate, that we’re still helping them and finding that next career that they’re passionate about.”

Another aspect of Fisk’s job is planning the university’s annual Military Appreciation events, which kicked off with the football game on Oct. 27 and continued with a student veterans luncheon and seminar titled “Today’s Women Warriors” on Oct. 30. This month, catch displays honoring veterans in the Special Collections Room, the Music and Media Commons and the foyer of the Humanities Library in Pattee  and Paterno Libraries and head downtown for a Military Apprecation-themed First Friday on Nov. 2.

This year’s festivities honoring local servicemen and women is capped off with the annual Veterans Day ceremony on Old Main lawn on Nov. 12.

“Our theme is ‘100 Years of Women in the Armed Forces’ but it’s balanced so there are events for everyone,” says Fisk.

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THE FEW, THE PROUD “When I first came into the military, if your unit was going on a training exercise — this happened to me when I was in Okinawa the first time from ’85 to ’86 — the ships weren’t outfitted for women. So if our unit was going to do a field exercise in Korea for a month or two and they were floating over, I couldn’t go. That was probably one of the most frustrating things about being in so early: being told you can’t do something not because you don’t have the capabilities but because we’re just not prepared for women to do that.”

LOVE OF LANGUAGE After she retired from the Marines, Fisk moved back to Central PA and took advantage of the GI Bill. “When I actually went back to college at Broome Community College I didn’t know what I wanted to study. But the second semester I was there I took French I and German I just because I love languages and I love being able to communicate with people. My French professor was fantastic, just really passionate about it, and it was infectious.” She transferred to Penn State and now has bachelor’s degrees in French and German and a master’s in German, and is currently working on another master’s in career counseling.

ART FORCES “We make (student veterans) step outside their comfort zone a little bit. They do a written project where they have to write about their experience in the military, and they have to couple that with an art project. We have those pieces lining our hallway in the office, and they’re going to be in the Pattee and Paterno Libraries for Military Appreciation Week starting Nov. 1. People can see this is how our veterans view themselves.”

SEMPER FIDELIS “Pugs are like potato chips — you can’t have just one.” Fisk’s pugs are named Nigel (“That’s Sir Nigel Edgington III”) and Angel, and she also has a Newfoundland named Darius. “He weighs 182 pounds. His back comes up to my belly button. He’s very much a gentle giant. Nigel bounces off him like a springboard.”

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