Even with the COVID-19 pandemic shaking up Athena Fleming's visions of football games and Trojan camaraderie, she says the USC veterans network has been a bright spot for her.
Photo courtesy of Athena Fleming

Graduate student earns online degree to help support fellow veterans

This story was originally published on USC Online and is republished here with permission. 


Athena Fleming, a former Coast Guard petty officer and student in the online Master of Communication Management program, dreamed of attending USC after attending basketball camps taught by alumna Cheryl Miller.

By now, it’s clear that life has many curves — but those pursing graduate degrees may understand the adage better than anyone else. For many students, graduate school represents the possibility to pursue a new career or transfer their talents to a different industry.   

Athena Fleming, a veteran who is enrolled in the online Master of Communication Management program at USC Annenberg can attest to just that.

Fleming currently works as an information officer at the California Department of Veteran’s Affairs (CalVet), and she is pursuing her master’s degree in hopes of one day running her own business. This was not the path that she set foot on, however, during her undergraduate studies.

Fleming initially attended Biola University in La Mirada, California, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis on public relations. But upon graduating in 2009, she was greeted by a nationwide economic crisis.

“The year I graduated from college was the year that every single newspaper was shutting down. It was a horrible time to be a journalist,” Fleming told USC Online.

With national instability, she needed a new opportunity with job security, and that’s exactly what the Coast Guard brought her. Although both of Fleming’s parents were in the Air Force, she laughed off the idea that they inspired her to join the military. 

“I had no plans to enlist, definitely not. I was in boot camp and I was like, ‘What am I doing here? What did I sign up for?’” she recalled.

That’s not to say Fleming didn’t end up appreciating her time with the Coast Guard as a petty officer third-class.

“They actually gave me the adventure of a lifetime. So, I'm really grateful and thankful that's how everything worked out,” she emphasized.

Recently, Fleming has even devoted herself to veterans affairs. On the CalVet communications team, she supports the Veterans Homes program, which offers long-term care to elderly or disabled veterans. There are eight locations across the state, and Fleming works at the second-largest Home, West Los Angeles, serving approximately 300 veterans.

“I think it goes without saying that the veterans are the best part of this job. We work with senior veterans, and it's three levels of care in this facility … It’s nice to kind of provide them that final thank you. That final place to hang their hat because for most of them, this is the last place that they live. There’s a lot of joy that can be found here,” she said.

Inspired by basketball idols

Fleming, who describes herself as “a worker bee,” said she has no plans to leave the department anytime soon, and that the reason she decided to look into graduate school was to advance her career in communications.

“I knew I wanted that kind of confidence boost, and of course the degree, too. I always dreamt of going to USC,” she said.

Fleming’s passion for the university started as a toddler when she was introduced to basketball through her mother, who played the sport in the Air Force.

“I grew up going to basketball camps that were taught by Cheryl Miller, an amazing USC alumna … I also grew up idolizing Lisa Leslie, [another USC graduate],” she said.

Although Fleming did not continue playing basketball past high school, she still idolized USC as the “go-to” university and knew she wanted to be part of the Trojan Family. Today, Fleming visibly demonstrates her school pride any chance she gets.

“Every time I’m in class, I’m the one with the sweaters and gear on. I’ve got my lanyard at work, and everyone is like, ‘All right, we get it, you go to USC!’” she laughed. “I’m so happy I enrolled.”

That sentiment is underscored by the fact that she’s already feeling the benefits of USC Annenberg’s online program, which she began just last year: “During class, I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve experienced that in my career.’ Then, I’m learning how I could have approached it differently or how I can approach it in the future,” she said.

By taking classes in subjects such as global communications and audience analysis, Fleming has also been able to better understand the specific needs and backgrounds of the Veterans Home residents and their families.

Finding a community with USC Veterans

While working full-time and juggling her course load has not been easy, Fleming says she’s been able to achieve a personal and professional balance, dedicating her weekends to school and reserving Fridays as her “self-care day.”

Fleming admitted her social life has taken a bit of hit with her new schedule, but her days are far from lonely, thanks to the USC community. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic shaking up her visions of football games and Trojan camaraderie, Fleming says the USC veterans network has been a bright spot.

“There is a really nice veterans community at USC, and they're really pushing hard for us to grow and connect … The VRC [USC Veterans Resource Center] does a lot of Zoom meetings,” she said.

There are even a few residents at the Veterans Home who like to join Fleming in her weekly video conferences, during which they all “sit around and just talk about life.”

“It’s nice because we have that community together as veterans, and so we don't have to explain the quirky things that we do or certain things we say — we all get it. For me, I think that's definitely one of my favorite things about attending USC, the real community you build,” she explained.

When asked how others can support veterans like the ones she works with, Fleming highlighted Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit that sends care packages to active duty first responders, police, firefighters, veterans and more.

The package, which can include donations like a knitted scarf, snacks and other essential items, even comes with a handwritten letter. Fleming received a care package herself one Thanksgiving when she was serving and unable to spend the holiday with her family. She still recalls how much it meant to her.

Fleming also personally works with the organization Dress for Success, which provides professional attire, career workshops and leadership development tools to women in the greater Los Angeles area to help them gain economic independence.

“I started to think about this year and COVID and what that means. Obviously, I'm in this program because I want to advance in my career, but there are so many people who are redirecting their careers, possibly without jobs because of the pandemic … It’s all about being able to connect women to these important resources,” she said.

Fleming encourages anyone feeling generally discouraged by 2020 to consider their options, whether it be graduate school, a new career path or a volunteer opportunity.

“I think that with the pandemic, you have a choice: to be upset and stuck at home or make something out of it. There are just so many great resources for people who do want to level up. So, 2021 could be another bad year, or it could be an amazing year filled with transitions. I just encourage everyone to make sure it's the latter,” she concluded.


Learn more about the Master of Communication Management online program today.