Navy veteran trades sea for classroom

A former nuclear electrician, Kaela Hunter has set her sights on a career in biomedical engineering.

Kaela Hunter poses wearing a grey sweatshirt and with her hands on her hips.
Now a first-year at Carolina, Kaela Hunter kept sight of her academic goals during her six years in the Navy. (Jon Gardiner/۰ͼ-Chapel Hill)

A little more than halfway through her first semester at Carolina, Kaela Hunter is navigating many of the typical challenges a first-year might encounter. A calculus course that’s requiring extra focus. Spanish 101 being a little more than she bargained for. Trying to find an academic routine and also connect with clubs and organizations across campus.

These are, however, minor challenges compared to those she faced during her six years in the Navy, where she served as a nuclear electrician. They’re also a part of the college life she’s been patiently waiting for.

On any given day aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan near Japan, a different task might pop up involving the ship’s nuclear reactor, its power source. Hunter operated turbine and diesel generators and performed maintenance work on additional equipment.

“The most challenging part for me was the intense amount of work we did,” she said. “And plenty of nights we’d go, and I’d average two, three hours of sleep at night.”

Unsurprisingly, Hunter identified perseverance as one of the most important traits her Naval service instilled in her.

Kaela Hunter posing in front of flags while wearing a Navy blue sweatshirt with a U.S. Navy emblem.

Kaela Hunter at her Naval swearing-in ceremony. (Submitted photo)

Perserverance is also an apt term for Hunter’s journey to a college education and Chapel Hill.

In high school in Georgia, she earned admission to Georgia Tech and was eager to pursue an engineering degree. But costs were prohibitive, and a recruiter encouraged her to do active service.

Hunter decided to enlist without a complete idea of what she was getting into. But she thought it was the best step for her at the time, even though her mother was “pretty wary” about the enlistment.

“Oh, you sure you want to do this?” her mother asked.

“Why not?” Hunter said. “Six years and then free college.”

Hunter acclimated to life in the Navy well and became proficient in electric theory, something she had never studied before. But she knew this wasn’t her dream career. She still wanted to go to college.

Carolina caught her eye because of the school’s campus culture and biomedical engineering program, which combines her long-time interest in engineering with the chance to enter a medical field. Currently a neuroscience major, she plans to apply to the BME program.

“I think the nice crossover with the medical field is definitely one of the leading reasons I chose ۰ͼ,” she said. “Also, I hear very good things about how accepting the culture is here, and that’s the thing that I valued in the Navy.”

Now nearly a year removed from her service, Hunter still doesn’t feel “fully detached” from the Navy.

While the life that came with it was at times bumpy, it shaped her daily existence for six years, introduced her to lifelong friends — “they are genuinely the greatest thing I gained from the military,” she said — and taught her skills like pushing through tough times and working well with others on projects that require collaboration.

A group selfie with Kaela Hunter and other Navy sailors.

Kaela Hunter (center) and her fellow sailors preparing for deployment. (Submitted photo)

“I think I appreciate my life more now,” Hunter said. She also appreciates that the Navy taught her many of the skills she needed for college and for her current job as a critical facilities technician in Raleigh.

In picturing potential career interests within biomedical engineering, Hunter is open to many options. Perhaps a line of work involving prosthetics. Or research involving stem cells and genomes.

“Anything in a lab, that’d be cool,” she said.