Veteran chooses Stanford to help chart the next step in her life journey

Rachael Nicol, a military service veteran who served in Afghanistan and in Kuwait, joined the Stanford community in September 2018 as a junior and declared psychology as her major.

In Afghanistan, U.S. Army Sgt. Rachael Nicol accompanied Special Forces soldiers on missions throughout the country – on land and by helicopter – as part of a two-woman team responsible for interacting with and building a rapport with Afghan women.

President Barack Obama with U.S. Army Sgt. Rachael Nicol. Obama awards medals to U.S. troops following his remarks to U.S. Troops at a rally at Bagram Airfield in Bagram, Afghanistan Sunday, May 25, 2014

During a 2014 ceremony at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star Medal with Valor to U.S. Army Sgt. Rachael Nicol, who is now a junior at Stanford. (Image credit: Pete Souza)

One day near the end of her deployment, the convoy in which Nicol was traveling was ambushed on three sides, leading to an eight-hour firefight.

In addition to returning fire with a machine gun from the back of a truck, she delivered mortar rounds to soldiers in another truck.

During the ambush, a Special Forces soldier was gravely wounded. As soon as the convoy gained the upper hand, Nicol’s truck began making its way toward a site where a medical evacuation helicopter could airlift the soldier to the base hospital.

It was a day that ended in tragedy with the soldier’s death.

Nicol, who sustained minor shrapnel wounds, later was awarded the Purple Heart.

She also received a Bronze Star Medal with Valor – a “V” is pinned to the red, white and blue ribbon from which the star hangs – for her bravery under fire that day.

During a 2014 ceremony at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama pinned the two medals to Nicol’s camouflage combat uniform, following a speech to the troops at the sprawling American compound north of Kabul.

Nicol, who completed her Army contract in January 2016, arrived at Stanford in September 2018. She was one of 23 transfer students – including nine military veterans – who joined the undergraduate community. Nicol, a Stanford junior, had earlier earned associate degrees in Spanish and in intelligence operations. She declared psychology as her major.

Her journey to Stanford

During a recent interview in the lounge of her residence hall in Escondido Village, Nicol talked about her decision to join the Army, her eight years as a soldier and the goal that brought her to Stanford – becoming an advocate for disadvantaged children and youth.

Rachael Nicol with her pug Vader

Military veteran Rachael Nicol, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Stanford, lives in Escondido Village with her rescue pug, Vader. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Nicol was accompanied by her black rescue pug, Vader, who ambled beneath the coffee table for a while before settling down at her feet.

Looking back at her decision to enlist in the military, Nicol said it reflected the respect for military service instilled in her by her father, who died of cancer when she was 13.

“If we saw a solider in uniform at the airport, my father would make me and my siblings go and shake their hand and tell them ‘thank you,’” she said. “When you’re a little kid, it’s awkward and you don’t really want to do it. But now, I thank God that he did. It made an impression on me. In a lot of ways, I’ve sought to honor my father in the decisions that I’ve made with my life.”

While her family expected her to go to college, Nicol, who grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, knew she wasn’t ready for university life – yet. So, a year after graduating from high school, she became the first member of her family to join the military. She was stationed in a military intelligence position with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Seeking opportunities to go into combat

During her initial military training, Nicol realized she wanted to have the chance to be deployed and fight in the war. She found her place on the battlefield after completing the Army’s Cultural Support Team (CST) program, which assigned female soldiers to assist Special Forces and Army Ranger teams in Afghanistan by serving as liaisons to women in the Islamic Republic.

While male soldiers were forbidden to address Afghan women because of the country’s cultural and religious traditions, female soldiers were usually able to interact with them.

“Any time there was a need to search women or question women, that responsibility fell on us,” Nicol said. “The purpose was to ensure safety – their safety and the safety of every soldier on the mission. It was always necessary and purposeful.”

They also helped build bridges with women through community projects. In one village, they taught self-defense and first-aid to female members of the Afghan police force. In another, they set up a sewing center – providing machines and a teacher – so women could sell handmade goods in the market.

Working with disadvantaged kids

In 2017, Nicol returned to Pennsylvania, where she became a caseworker for a nonprofit organization devoted to disadvantaged children and youth, including kids living in group homes and in homeless shelters.

“That’s really an area I feel called to work in,” she said.

While she could have continued working in the field without a college degree, Nicol realized she could become a more effective advocate by going back to school.

Nicol, who had visited Stanford as a high school student during a family trip to California, remembered loving the campus. She applied, but never expected an acceptance letter, given the low number of candidates admitted as transfer students.

She made the journey to Stanford with her partner, Cody, who works for a utility company.

During her first quarter, Nicol took an introductory psychology course, and a course in the behavioral and neural aspects of perception. She took an ethics course offered by the Program in Human Biology, and “Famous Last Words,” an Introductory Seminar.

When she returns for winter quarter, Nicol will continue her studies and getting to know Stanford and the many resources it offers to students.

“While the transition to Stanford culture has been a whirlwind, I am excited to pursue the opportunities provided and give back as much as possible in my time here,” Nicol said.

“I plan to participate in public service, dig deeper into the child development courses offered in the Psychology Department and explore the state of California and beyond with my partner, Cody, and Vader.”