Headshot of Tracy L. Garrett.

Tracy L. Garrett

Major General, U.S. Marine Corps

An English major with a passion for art history, Major General Tracy Garrett found that joining the U.S. Marine Corps allowed her to combine all of her interests, including a love of travel. Her 36 years of service in various posts with the U.S. Marine Corps included acting as the first woman Inspector General of the Marine Corps. Major General Garrett retired from the military in 2014. Today, she continues to take an active role with service men and women and is focused on fostering leadership among young girls, in particular. Studying abroad helped Major General Garrett develop skills she drew upon throughout her career as a woman in senior levels of the U.S. military.

IES Abroad: You were a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) student at the University of Washington and an English major. What motivated you to study abroad in Vienna?

TG: I received my NROTC scholarship in 1974, and I believe that was the first year women had the opportunity to receive ROTC scholarships in the Navy program. I asked that my scholarship be dedicated to the Marine Corps, and I was commissioned in 1978 as second lieutenant. Some branches of the military require specific degrees of their prospective officers, but the Marine Corps was not restricted in that way. I wanted to major in English and art history, and the Marine Corps allowed me to do that. I chose to go abroad as a way of expanding on the art history education I received at school, which can largely be a matter of studying a timeline and memorizing slides about artwork. Seeing these works of art firsthand was such a tremendous opportunity.

IES Abroad: What are some of your memories from your time in Vienna?

TG: The most influential things were the experience of traveling independently and developing a new appreciation for architecture. Going to the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) introduced me to architecture as a meaningful expression of culture. I also traveled to Budapest, Florence, Czechoslovakia – wherever I could get to easily from Vienna. I had a flood of wonderful experiences seeing original art. It was magical and so accessible. Traveling to Vienna was my first international experience. Many of the other students had done family travel already, staying in lovely hotels and enjoying great meals. That was not my experience – I was there on a shoe string budget. Luckily, one of the joys of seeing art is that access to it is generally free. I was really on my own, and I loved it.

IES Abroad: What type of personal and/or professional impact did the study abroad experience have on you?

TG: Ultimately, I learned how accessible the world is. Vienna is a very long way from Seattle, Washington. Vienna was even on the edge of being a forbidden travel destination, situated so close to the Soviet Union. This sense of stretching my boundaries opened me up and prepared me for things I later did in my professional life with ease. For example, I was on active duty in Iraq, and in my last five years before retirement, I spent time in Africa. Just because a place is unusual, doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible. Really, the whole world is accessible.

IES Abroad: When you joined NROTC, you did not intend to make the military your career. Why did you decide to stay on?

TG: A large part of my professional career has been as a reservist, which is essentially halftime. The work-life balance that being a reservist afforded me while building a meaningful career was really important. People can be drawn to the military for practical reasons, but then we stay with the military for more heartfelt reasons – for service, for mission. I always appreciated the adventure that comes with being in the military. I have traveled all over, and I have made many professional acquaintances. You see our national government from a different perspective. The work and the adventure just kept getting better and better as I became more senior.

IES Abroad: Did studying abroad help you manage the ambiguities of your work? What skills were most important to successfully navigating your 36-year career with the U.S. Marine Corps?

TG: Studying abroad taught me that accepting a culture that is foreign to you allows you to see the genuine upside of diversity. In our nation, we see the immigrant experience from the outside. But when you are the outsider, you gain a different perspective. Studying abroad feeds that shift in curiosity. You accept that you are going to have wildly unusual experiences, and having that acceptance is huge for grown-up life. Studying abroad is transformative.

The discipline of looking back at the United States from an outside point of view was clearly important to my work with the Marine Corps. All international media is aimed at the U.S., and it flips one’s perspective to see us through the eyes of the Austrians, for example. Looking at our country from abroad made me skeptical of the media and the inputs we get from living in the States. Now, it’s all global, and if you are bound by your national perspective, you are nearly blind.

IES Abroad: In 2007, you were promoted to Brigadier General and then served as Inspector General of the Marine Corps, becoming the first woman to hold this post. In 2010, you were promoted to Major General, a position few women have held. What has being a woman at senior leadership levels of the U.S. military meant to you?

TG: The experience of being a senior leader comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility, especially in public service. You are held to high standards and face public scrutiny. Then, there is the added filter of doing all that as a woman. Regardless of gender, however, you must work your way up the pyramid, and every day is a challenge. Being a Marine or a leader of any kind is complex; the system is bound by an outside framework that comes with inherent prejudices and biases. The successful person will have the skills to navigate that framework. I have faced a lot of gender discrimination, but I think one’s work speaks for itself. Doing a good job is hard to overlook. In a meritocracy, if you do well, if you work hard, you will get promoted. That lessens the influence of discrimination right there.

IES Abroad: What is a general misunderstanding about the U.S. military today?

TG: There actually is a large degree of open-mindedness among those in the military. We are faced with the challenges of achieving world peace, and meeting these challenges involves young people who are idealistic about what’s possible to achieve and about the value of their service to the nation. In general, though, those who come into the military want to do good things. There is a tremendous amount of open-mindedness about how we are going to accomplish our mission and what is possible. There is an intense determination to meet the mission that is not present in other contexts. I have worked in business and in the non-profit sector, but it is different in the military. We undergo physical and emotional challenges together, which builds a great amount of loyalty to each other. Above our commitment to each other is our commitment to the mission. That is a positive and powerful environment to work in. Nothing beats it.

IES Abroad: You serve on the Board of Directors of the United States Automobile Association (USAA) as well as the Girls Scouts of Western Washington. How did you get involved with these organizations and what motivates you today?

TG: USAA is a wonderful organization and business enterprise. It was set up to provide for the financial security and well-being of military personnel and families. The board has been a tremendous experience for me. There are thirteen board members, and four are women. I am honored to be a part of the organization. The Girl Scouts of Western Washington is a position I sought out because I was a Girl Scout for many years, and also because I had a couple of opportunities while in uniform to try to form a bridge between the Girl Scouts and the military. I think of it as the premier leadership organization for girls and women. One thing that many congresswomen have in common is that about 80% were Girl Scouts. They are a very diverse group of women, but they share good leadership abilities, and they likely learned that through scouting. Girl Scouts grow into women who will make a difference for our country.

IES Abroad: Why do you feel studying abroad is so important?

TG: Studying abroad is an opportunity to break out a little bit, to move away from your comfort zone. Your focus might be developing your language skills or something site-specific, but regardless of what your initial motivation is, magic happens when you are open and in a place that is unfamiliar.