Balancing academic and military duties, Catherine Yang was all in

With self-determination and a sense of adventure, Yang tackled a double major, the duties of an NROTC midshipman — and late-night comedy writing sessions.
Catherine Yang

Catherine Yang (Photo by Daniel Havlat)

Catherine Yang had already committed to another prestigious East Coast university when, a few weeks after high school graduation, she received a call from Yale. She was on the waitlist at Yale, but the news that she was suddenly being offered a spot caught her by surprise. Her mind racing, Yang muted her phone and looked at her parents.

I had five seconds to decide,” Yang remembered recently. “Then I thought, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. I just said, I’m in. Just do it. I unmuted the phone and said ‘yes.’”

Catherine Yang and her parents at an ROTC event
Catherine Yang with her parents at an ROTC event.

The episode offers a glimpse of the self-determination and sense of adventure with which Yang embraces life. In her four years at Yale, Yang, a computer science and history major, has distinguished herself as a friendly, fun-loving go-getter and leader unafraid of new experiences, obstacles, and changes of direction, according to those who know her.

Although no member of her family had previously served in the military, Yang decided to join the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps after talking to a Marine Corps recruiter at a high school track meet. As a Yale College student, she was able to balance a hefty academic workload with the demands of life as an NROTC midshipman, which included early morning workouts, specialized coursework, and rigorous physical fitness tests each semester. Yang served as a squad leader, assistant public affairs officer for the program, an assistant training officer, and battalion sergeant major. She received awards for exceptional peer leadership and perfect scores on combat and physical fitness tests.

Catherine Yang with intramural basketball teammates, Handsome Dan, and service dog Heidi
Catherine Yang with intramural basketball teammates, and a couple of four-legged spectators, following a knockout basketball tournament.

But it’s people, not notching accomplishments, that motivate her, Yang says. At Branford College, she was eager to be part of any activity that built community. She served as the college’s intramural secretary for three years, coordinating game schedules and drumming up participation in intramural sports. Ever ready to try something new, Yang joined the Odd Ducks comedy group soon after arriving at Yale. Late night sketch-writing sessions with her fellow Ducks produced a trove of goofy skits and some of her fondest college memories.

I think we’re the funniest group on campus,” she joked. “We’re like a family.”

Two internships provided valuable work experience. For one, at the ROTC summer program at the United States Military Academy at West Point, she worked as a wargaming programmer with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The other, as a Sino-Israel Global Network Academic Leadership Strategy and Special Projects Intern, was completed remotely due to the pandemic.

But it was an ROTC service lab at a New Haven soup kitchen last fall that turned out to be most rewarding.

When the new semester rolled around, I kept doing it,” she said. “In college, a lot of stuff you do is for yourself. It felt good to do something for someone else; for members of this community.”

On July 1, Yang will start officer training school in Quantico, Virginia.  She plans to volunteer at a local dog shelter near her parent’s home until she heads south. She’s not sure what she’ll do after completing her four years with the Marine Corps, but says whatever it is will be about helping other people.

Yang says Yale was a reach for her but she’s glad she took the chance.

I thought it was a long shot but I ended up here in the end,” she said. “Even though the odds are long, you need to have faith in yourself and just go for it.”

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