From the Navy to DC to FourBlock and Columbia: Laura Cabrera shares the story of her transition back home.

US Navy veteran and FourBlock alumna Laura Cabrera will serve as a Head Senior Marshal for General Studies Class Day at Columbia University — an honor bestowed upon only two members of this year’s graduating class. Students are selected based on their achievement in academics and extracurricular activities during their time at Columbia.

We recently spoke with Cabrera to discuss this most recent accomplishment of hers, as well as her time in the Navy, her transition from active duty to civilian life, and what’s yet to come for the talented young professional.

The native New Yorker’s vast work experience began in the Navy, where she had the opportunity to work several different jobs. She started as a deck seaman — doing “dirty work for 12+ hours a day” — before becoming a crane operator for submarine overhaul operations. After learning Farsi, she took on her final position in the Navy as a cryptologic linguist. “I’ve definitely had my share of adventures in the military,” said Cabrera, “and I’m thankful because it has helped become the person I am today.”

Following her time in the Navy, Cabrera was faced with the difficult challenge all returning servicemembers face: transitioning back into civilian life. Her transition began smoothly; Cabrera’s training allowed her to find lucrative work in the DC area. However, once she decided she wanted to go back to school — specifically an Ivy League school — the difficulties associated with transitioning became more evident.

Navy veteran and soon-to-be Columbia graduate Laura Cabrera

The first step in this journey was deciding where she wanted to pursue her education. Cabrera admits she wasn’t a great student in high school, “which is why I joined the Navy in the first place,” she said. Even as a Queens native, this made it so Columbia was never on her radar. However, it was during her enlistment that she came to a realization: as she puts it, “all things are possible.” She promised herself she’d quit her job in DC and move back to NYC, but on one condition: she had to get accepted into Columbia. And in 2014, she did just that. “I never thought in a million years that I would be here today,” she said. “I still pinch myself!”

However, studying at an Ivy League university would prove to be a challenge — a challenge she was up for, but a difficult one nonetheless. “I was getting A’s in my previous college courses, but Columbia was on another level,” she said. “I had to learn how to manage my time more efficiently while continuing to volunteer and do extracurricular activities — something I needed to do because it gives me a sense of purpose.”

Cabrera isn’t alone in this search for purpose. Upon returning home from active duty, many transitioning veterans struggle to rediscover that sense of purpose they felt while serving. This is one of the pillars of FourBlock’s Career Readiness Program: to help veterans find purpose and meaning in a civilian career that best fits their talents and interests.

Thankfully for Cabrera, she had already discovered that purpose through volunteering and various extracurricular activities. But when she heard of FourBlock through other veterans at Columbia, she believed the foundation could help her with another crucial part of the transition process: expanding her professional network.

Each week, FourBlock cohorts meet with representatives from top companies across the country, including PwC, KPMG, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Amazon, and many more. This draw is what led Cabrera to enroll in FourBlock NYC’s Spring 2015 cohort. “It is a great way to get your feet wet in terms of being exposed to numerous companies, how they work, what they look for in different candidates, as well getting plenty of access to networking opportunities,” she said. “It was important for me to network with companies that were not government-oriented — something I had been exposed to before. It was also beneficial that I participated in the program during my first semester, since it helped me figure out which types of companies I wanted to pursue after graduation.”

Cabrera would go on to complete the program, and now, two years later, she’ll graduate from Columbia as a Head Senior Marshal of her graduating class. She says she’s grateful for the recognition and surprised she was selected; however, that surprise is hers and hers alone. Anyone who’s had the privilege to work alongside Cabrera — or simply review her credentials and share a handful of emails, as I have — knows this acknowledgement couldn’t be more well deserved.

In addition to serving our country, excelling academically, and volunteering for various on-campus events, during her time at Columbia Cabrera has served as the General Studies Senior Class Vice President, Co-Chair of the Senior Week Committee, and been a part of the General Studies Student Council. “My job this past year has been focused around planning, organizing and executing events and activities for graduating seniors,” she said. “I also disseminate important information to seniors, making sure they are up to date with graduation requirements. It’s a lot of work but extremely rewarding at the same time.”

RELATED: FourBlock Founder to Lead New Columbia University Center

Through her success, Cabrera hasn’t forgotten about the struggle she, and many other transitioning veterans, faced. As the saying goes, “send the elevator back down.” This sentiment isn’t lost on the Navy veteran, who offered plenty of strong advice for others currently trying to find purpose and success back home.

“I would encourage transitioning veterans to try out different things until they find something they love to do,” she said. “Go to info sessions, site visits, and talk to lots of people in different industries. If they can get a mentor, even better!

“They should pursue what they know in their heart is best for them, as long as they give it their all. They should not let their military experience be their only identity; there is plenty out there to discover and learn from. I would also encourage them to find a middle ground and volunteer when they can by focusing on more than just academics (if they are enrolled in school). It will help them become well-rounded individuals. Lastly, build a solid network and be good to people; it will make a world of difference in the end.”

So what’s next for the rising star? She recently completed Accenture’s Veteran Technology Training Program and is currently applying for jobs in the tech industry. “Hopefully, it will lead to a job offer since I loved working on different projects,” she said. Cabrera is also applying for marketing jobs and plans on moving to Austin, TX after graduation, where she intends on pursuing her MBA within the next year.

As Cabrera put it so well, “The sky’s the limit at this point in my life.”


About FourBlock Foundation

FourBlock is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is the nation’s local network for leading veteran professionals. Each year, hundreds of high-potential veterans in every corner of the country are equipped to pursue careers right for them, thanks to the support of local FourBlock communities. From leading organizations to launching innovative new ventures, FourBlock veterans are tackling mission critical goals at Fortune 500 companies through the power of the FourBlock network. To learn more about how FourBlock is helping veterans transition better and building a national community of veteran professionals, visit www.fourblock.org.

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