May 26, 2011
Lt. Nicolette Cooper commanded the deck on the USS Chosin, a Navy cruiser, while the captain was off duty. While in command, she was in charge of an exercise that required her to stop a Swedish submarine from firing a torpedo at her ship. According to Cooper, Sweden is known for having the quietest submarines. Cooper says she successfully avoided the fake attack by "driving the ship all crazy and making these crazy turns."
Cooper always knew she would end up in the military; she's known since she was 8 years old growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. Her father and her grandfather were both in the Marines. She always thought she would go into the Marines, but her grandfather changed that when he asked her, "Do you want to sleep in the dirt, or do you want clean sheets every night?" She knew right then she was going into the Navy.
After graduating from Penn State with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, she was commissioned in May 2003 and deployed the next month. Her first ship was the USS Iwo Jima, which was stationed in Norfolk, Va., and deployed to the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. She was in charge of shipboard operations before being transferred to the engineering department.
After being on the Iwo Jima for more than two years, she was transferred to her second ship, the USS Chosin, which was stationed in Pearl Harbor and deployed to the Pacific. She was on the Chosin for more than a year and a half. There, Cooper was the fire control officer in charge of firing missiles and keeping track of the ship's radar. She spent her last three years in the Navy as a liaison for the Air Force in Hawaii; she provided naval input to the Air Force officers in charge of military planning with other countries.
She used to lead defense exercises, but now Cooper is sitting in an MU classroom with other students. She chose to work toward a master's of business administration because it seemed practical to her. Cooper says her friends explained that with the skill set she received in her managerial roles as an officer, she could be a senior-level vice president of a company. But she didn't have the business knowledge.
"I figured if I am going to get a job in the working world, I better get this baseline business knowledge that everyone else has been getting because they've been working," she says. "Being on a ship in the middle of the ocean didn't help me to learn about price points, marketing research and all the other stuff you have to care about in the business world."
Cooper says she has a new perspective on school after being in the Navy for seven years. When she was at Penn State, she had a stereotypical college experience consisting of late nights, partying, drinking, skipping class and neglecting her schoolwork.
Cooper now takes her work more seriously and invests time in her education. "I feel like it's a commitment that I have to keep," she says.
Cooper's relationships with other MU students differ from the relationships she had with her fellow sailors during her service. On the ship, she had to get along with everyone because there is no escape in the middle of the ocean. "Here, you can pick and choose whom you want to hang out with," she says. "There, your choices are limited. You just kind of pick everyone by default."
Cooper says she relates easily to other students in her master's program. "It's a much more mature audience already," she says.
She says what differentiates her from her fellow students is that her professors have reverence for her. "When a professor finds out I've been in the Navy, they sometimes have more respect for the contributions I make in class than a lot of my classmates," Cooper says. In her public affairs class, she says, her professor thinks she's valuable to the class. "I feel like I've always been the same," she says. "But I know I'm not."
The Navy has changed Cooper. She's matured after having leadership roles on the two ships. "I think because I've been in charge of people, and they rely on me for important things, I'm more conscious and aware of the repercussions of my decisions." She says she also learned to take responsibility for her actions whether they're good or bad, something she says she didn't do so well before her service.
She is currently in the active reserves, but in the future, Cooper hopes to use her graduate degree to run her own nonprofit organization associated with at-risk children and people in poverty. This summer, Cooper has an internship with Peace of the City, an organization in Buffalo; she will be working with inner-city kids in after-school programs. She hopes one day her nonprofit organization will be similar to Peace of the City.