Senior Snapshot: Isabella Van Atten Jumps into Military Service

Isabella Van Atten ’21 in a helicopter
Author  Carine Tarazi ’03
Published on 

The first week of June, Isabella Van Atten ’21 will be a Distinguished Military Graduate in the top 10 percent of her Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) class in the country. A classics major, she’s one of the first two women in her battalion to go into the infantry since it first opened to women in 2017.

Her years at Wellesley were full of thrilling lessons most college students never learn, including rappelling out of helicopters and jumping from planes. “I never had the desire to jump out of a perfectly good airplane,” Van Atten admitted, but the Army’s Airborne School involved weeks of solid training. “You stand on a 3-foot block and practice falling to the ground maybe 100 times a day. By the time it comes to jump week, you’re thinking, ‘I know how to do this. Just get me out of this plane.’”

Immediately after commencement, she’s hoping to attend Survive Escape Resist Evade (SERE) School, training as though she were a prisoner of war, and in July, she’ll go to Fort Benning in Georgia, where she’ll be stationed until December. After that, she’ll go on to Italy, where she’s excited to ultimately spend up to four of her seven years of service. “I actually added three years to my service obligation just to get to Italy, because it’s a very historic and renowned unit over there in Vicenza,” she said.

“In Italy,” she added, “I’ll jump out of a plane every month.”

Van Atten hadn’t signed a contract with the U.S. Army when she first enrolled at Wellesley, but she was inspired by her older brother, who was in ROTC when he attended college. She reached out to the Army in the spring of her first year to learn more about what leadership opportunities were available. She has taken those opportunities seriously: Last fall, she was the cadet battalion commander, the highest position available to ROTC members. Once she commissions, she’ll be a second lieutenant in charge of a platoon of 40 soldiers. “A year and a half later, I’ll be a first lieutenant,” she said, “and two years after that, I’ll be a captain in the intelligence community.”

Van Atten said her Wellesley professors have been very supportive of and understanding about her training, especially when she’s “in the woods for three to four days, and I can’t touch a laptop or any homework.” But being a part of ROTC while attending Wellesley hasn’t always been easy. “My classmates overwhelmingly are very critical of the military, which I understand,” she said. “It becomes difficult when people make strong assumptions about me. However, like many of them, I believe it’s important to challenge and hold accountable any organization that has such influence and capabilities. I am proud to carry my Wellesley values and experiences into my military career to make it a better organization.”

Van Atten noted that there are some commonalities between her major and the military. “In the Army, most unit mottos are in Latin,” she said, so she has an immediate understanding most members lack. But on a deeper level, she said, “It’s been very interesting reading Homer or any kind of ancient text about the camaraderie and culture of the military. You can see it today, how the culture, traditions, and discipline have developed through history.” Her favorite course in the classics department was Gender in Antiquity, which, Van Atten said, “brought a new perspective to examining masculine and feminine stereotypes and seeing how they’ve transformed throughout history, especially in military environments.”

Van Atten has been traveling between her childhood home in Worcester, Mass., and Fort Bragg, N.C., and has missed being at the College in her final semester. “I’ve definitely been looking at pictures of the Wellesley campus and thinking fondly of it,” she said.