From helicopter pilot to law school graduate

USC Gould School of Law • November 22, 2019
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After a successful career in the military, Yvette Kelley returned home to Los Angeles for a career in law. She earned her JD in 2019 with a certificate in ADR.

By Jill Barone

Yvette Kelley, JD 2019

Yvette Kelley, JD 2019, is not afraid of taking chances or trying new things.

Born and raised in Los Angeles to a Siberian immigrant father and Lithuanian American mother, she fondly recalled her childhood and the mix of cultures that surrounded her at home. Her father taught her the importance of hard work and giving back to a country he believed had given him so much. This became the basis of many of her life decisions, one of which came in the form of a postcard and led to a 30-year career in the military.

The mailing arrived at a time when she was questioning her future and overwhelmed by the mortgage for a house she purchased while attending college near Palm Springs. The postcard advertised a no-obligation, six-week course to join the U.S. Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), an opportunity she thought could help her get back on her feet.

When she arrived at the basic training camp in Fort Knox, Kentucky, she immediately knew it was the right decision.

“Although I did not come from a military family, I had a strong sense of giving back from my dad,” she said. “I was really not physically or mentally ready for military life; I could not even do a push up! However, I thrived on the challenge, the sense of camaraderie and the teamwork. It changed my life in a very positive way.”

After the course, Kelley received a scholarship to finish her undergraduate degree at UCLA, where she continued with ROTC. In addition to her classes, Kelley met her ROTC classmates for physical fitness and weekend training. During this time, she discovered her love for adrenaline while attending airborne school.

In April 1983, Kelley reported for active duty in Korea, the beginning of her decades-long career on active duty. At age 22, she became a platoon leader — an uncommon role for young women at that time —  in the 2nd Infantry Division in charge of a mostly male group of soldiers, many of whom were much older than she was.

When Kelley decided it was time for something new, she considered two options: helicopter pilot or  judge advocate general, a type of military lawyer. Kelley always had a passion for law but her love for adrenaline won and she left everything behind for helicopter pilot training in Alabama. Small in stature, Kelley was disqualified due to measurement standards. However, she fought it and was able to get a waiver and then graduated in the top of her class from flight school.

Kelley’s military career culminated in the Pentagon, where she performed outreach and community engagement for the U.S. Central Command, the headquarters responsible for leading operations in the Middle East.

When thinking about the future, Kelley missed California and returned home to study law. She spent her 1L year at Southwestern Law School but said had always dreamed of attending USC and was accepted as a transfer student.

“Being accepted to USC was a golden opportunity for me,” she said. “Law school is known for being a very competitive and often stressful environment. However, the collaboration and cooperation between my classmates and the helpfulness of the staff surprised and pleased me. It reminded me of what I loved most about being in the military.”

During the Alumni Mentor Lunch, Kelley sat across from an alumnus who was working for the District Attorney’s office. The alumnus gave her resume to a recruiter who was looking for a CEO for New Directions for Veterans, an organization responsible for helping homeless veterans in Los Angeles County through housing and support services. Impressed by her leadership experience, the organization hired Kelley and gave approval to continue her degree while working. In spring of 2019, she graduated and received both her JD and a certificate in alternative dispute resolution.

Since graduation, Kelley has been involved in mediation work, one of her newest passions. She is also planning a wedding to her high school boyfriend whom she reconnected with when she returned to Los Angeles. “I have come full circle,” she said.

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