What’s in a name? Purdue’s Caitlin Clark follows unique path into Navy

Purdue alumnus and new naval officer Caitlin Clark

New alumna Caitlin Clark, Purdue ROTC, will work as a surface warfare officer aboard the USS Gravely for the next three years. (Purdue University photo/Greta Bell)

Political science alumna juggled sorority life and Navy ROTC commitment while working to fulfill a childhood dream

Caitlin Clark understands all too well the crowd’s reaction when she crossed the stage to accept her diploma at Purdue’s spring commencement ceremony.

It has been a source of amusement over the last few years that she shares a name with a certain superstar athlete — maybe you’ve heard of her — so the commencement attendees’ murmurs, cheers and laughter when they heard her name called were more of a pleasant surprise than a shock.

“It’s made it funny to have restaurant reservations. People never know who’s going to walk in,” says Clark (BA political science ’24), whose hometown, Carmel, is roughly 15 miles from Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, where the other Caitlin Clark is a rookie on the Indiana Fever. “I have gotten a lot of memes about me being a world-famous basketball player. I get a lot of comments, people striking up conversations when I’m out to dinner or at a store or something like that. It’s been interesting — a little bit more attention than I’d gotten previously.”

While their response was understandable, most commencement attendees were probably unaware that there were good reasons to cheer for the Purdue Caitlin Clark’s achievement. That weekend, she joined both her mother and uncle as Purdue alumni and was commissioned into the U.S. Navy, fulfilling a dream she’s had since she was 8 years old.

An unusual fascination

That’s not an exaggeration. Clark became intrigued with the Navy during early childhood when visiting her aunt and uncle in Annapolis, Maryland, home of the U.S. Naval Academy, and interacting with the midshipmen their family sponsored. Her fascination only grew when interacting with the active-duty and special forces service members she met through her dad’s work providing board certification examinations to U.S. Special Operations Command paramedics.

One Sunday while attending a Catholic Mass at the Naval Academy with her parents, Clark observed the many impressive students decked out in their dress white uniforms and spoke up.

“Caitlin asked, ‘Mom, is this hard?’” recalls her mom, Donna York, recipient of three Purdue nursing degrees: an associate (1980), a bachelor’s (1982) and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (2021). “I said, ‘Oh, I think it’s really hard.’ And then she said, ‘I think this is what I’m going to do. It just seems like the right thing.’ So from that point on, everything was about learning about the Navy.”

Clark’s interest never wavered, right up through participation in Purdue’s Naval ROTC program and her commissioning ceremony as a surface warfare officer two days before commencement.

“I’ve kind of geared everything toward this goal of being in the Navy and being the best officer that I can be and being a leader,” Clark says. “That changed what I did in middle school, what I did in high school, where I ended up. It was very surreal for everything that I’ve been wanting in the last 14 years to finally come to fruition and be an actual naval officer.”

In August, she will report for a basic division officer course ahead of a three-year stint aboard the USS Gravely missile destroyer, followed by a two-year shore tour. “I can’t really tell you why I’ve always wanted to do it, but I have, and I could not imagine doing anything else,” Clark says. “It’s definitely motivating, and it’s motivating to be surrounded by people that think the same way and want to push for the same things.”

A future intelligence expert?

Clark initially planned to follow both of her parents into the medical profession as a naval doctor. However, she jokes that “my love for biology did not persist” as a college student, causing her to change course.

Instead, she found that the classes in her minor, political science, were what truly excited her. That was especially the case when the subject matter dealt with national security and counterintelligence — starting with a course on terrorism taught by assistant professor of practice Melissa Will.

“She was a CIA analyst before, so she had a crazy-cool perspective,” Clark says of Will. “She is an awesome professor, and I think a lot of that stems from all this knowledge that she has from her past life of not just being in academia.”

In addition to sharing perspectives from more than a decade of intelligence-gathering work, Will invites FBI special agents to her classroom to share their real-world experiences with students. Students are often fascinated by this important work, and Will could tell that was clearly the case during conversations with Clark after class.

Pursuing it as a career is somewhat rare, however, so Will was impressed when Clark accepted an internship with the Department of Justice in the summer of 2023.

“It was great to see she actually got that internship and was able to take those initial steps down that career path,” Will says. “When she came up to talk to me after class, she didn’t specifically say she wanted to do counterintelligence at that point, but she definitely said she was interested in going into the intel track, which was exciting. I hear that a lot, but then she actually was taking steps to do it.”

Clark’s interest in counterintelligence evolved during her time at Purdue, to the extent that she now hopes to pursue a master’s degree in counterintelligence once her three years aboard the Gravely come to an end. “I feel like I really found my niche,” Clark says. “I wish that I had done it earlier.”

Unexpected extracurricular activity

Clark believes many different aspects of her Purdue experience prepared her for the journey ahead in the Navy.

The ROTC program imparted valuable lessons about confidence, toughness and teamwork to be sure.

“She’s always been confident, but now she knows that if she needs to run 20 miles, she’s going to run 20 miles,” York says. “Nothing is insurmountable, and that’s what I think ROTC helped her see. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do if she really put her mind to it with the right team.”

Meanwhile, participation in another campus activity — membership in Kappa Delta sorority, which her mom describes as “a juxtaposition that you don’t expect” — sharpened other necessary life skills.

“Kappa Delta taught me a lot about living with the people that you’re leading and living where you work, which I think is going to be incredibly valuable when I’m on my ship in the middle of the ocean,” Clark says.

Clark pledged Kappa Delta at the University of Pittsburgh before transferring to Purdue at the end of a COVID-impacted freshman year where she did not attend a single in-person class and campus de-densification efforts had her living in a hotel room instead of a dorm.

She quickly found a home and community at Purdue’s Theta Nu chapter, which she eventually served as chapter president. Although she was one of only three Boilermaker women who were involved in both the Greek system and Navy ROTC, Clark calls the unusual combination a formative experience that helped her recognize the necessity of employing different communication styles when interacting with two extremely different audiences. “There’s a switch that you have to make,” Clark says. “The feedback you give to someone in an ROTC setting is entirely different than when interacting with a sorority sister.”

Kappa Delta taught me a lot about living with the people that you’re leading and living where you work, which I think is going to be incredibly valuable when I’m on my ship in the middle of the ocean.

Caitlin Clark, a future surface warfare officer on the USS Gravely

‘Find what makes your soul sing’

Clark’s Purdue journey was unique to say the least, but she looks back and can’t imagine doing it any other way.

She took the steps necessary to fulfill a childhood dream and was exposed to subject matter that could become the focus of her career in the Navy and beyond — and she did it her own way.

“Her dad and I really tried to raise her in a way that we want you to find what makes your soul sing and do it. There’s nothing you can’t do,” York says.

Clark has certainly accepted her parents’ challenge thus far, culminating in the commissioning and commencement doubleheader, which just so happened to occur on Mother’s Day weekend.

“It was like blowing up all your firecrackers all at once,” York says. “It was just amazing.”

Throughout Clark’s time at Purdue, fellow students would marvel at the mettle and time-management skills that were necessary to juggle her military regimen, academic coursework and sorority life. But she pulled it off, providing a template for how students can find ways to make time for the things they love to do. “I feel like I got two totally different experiences that have really helped me become a more well-rounded person,” she says.

She said, ‘I think this is what I’m going to do. It just seems like the right thing.’ So from that point on, everything was about learning about the Navy.

Donna York
on when her 8-year-old daughter, Caitlin Clark, decided that she would someday join the Navy