FARGO – Marcella Alvarez-Clavijo was homeless when she enlisted in the Marine Corps not long after graduating from high school. Home for more than a year was a bench in a park or subway station or a friend’s couch.
“It was a rough life,” she said. “It was very draining and very emotional.”
A hitch in the armed services seemed like a secure and dependable world. She chose the Marines, regarding it as the most difficult service branch, with the lowest rate of women, and therefore presenting an aspiring challenge.
Her time in the Marines, in two stints, led to a variety of jobs, including work as a broker’s assistant on Wall Street. After several moves and two marriages, she followed her mother to Minnesota. She studied social work at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
At the urging of her three children, she decided to make Fargo-Moorhead her home. She landed a “dream job” as a Cass County veterans service representative, where two of every 10 veterans her office helps are women.
Census survey results compiled by the North Dakota Census Office suggest Alvarez-Clavijo’s military experience, which she credits with turning her life around, is not unusual.
“The military became, to me, my mom and dad,” she said.
Over a recent five-year period, the median income for female veterans in North Dakota was $31,345, compared to $23,402 for non-veteran women, an income gap of 31 percent. Male veterans and non-veterans earned higher incomes than females, but the income differential between male veterans and non-veterans was much smaller than for female veterans and non-veterans, according to the census survey.
“A lot of individuals use military service as an economic equalizer,” said Kevin Iverson, manager of the North Dakota Census Office. “It kind of helps you take a step up the economic ladder.”
Also, the discipline instilled by serving in the military appears to help veterans, a factor that starts to become evident by the time they reach their mid-30s, judging from census figures, Iverson said.
“You see a slightly higher labor participation rate, a slightly higher number of hours worked” among veterans, he added.
In North Dakota, women comprise 8.1 percent of the state’s 46,905 veterans, a bit higher than the national average of 7.9 percent. There are an estimated 3,592 female veterans in North Dakota.
One striking attribute of female veterans in North Dakota: One in five working female veterans were employed with federal government agencies. Not one of the North Dakota female veterans surveyed reported being out of work.
Minority women were more likely than white women in North Dakota to have served in the military. The difference was most pronounced among black females, almost 10 percent of whom reported being veterans, and American Indians, 4 percent, about double the rate for white women, according to census figures.
North Dakota’s female veterans are slightly more likely to have children, but slightly more likely to be divorced than non-veteran females, according to the census survey.
Alvarez-Clavijo, who started her job in March, said the female veterans she helps are as a group conscientious. “They’re very dedicated, very knowledgeable, extremely committed,” she said.
Serving in the Marines, including a tour in Japan, where Alvarez-Clavijo worked as a printer, instilled confidence and perseverance that have followed her into civilian life.
“The first thing I learned in the Marine Corps was there are no obstacles in getting the mission done,” she said. Having tackled rappelling and 25-mile marches, nothing in civilian life really seems daunting, she said.
“No matter what, I know I can survive,” Alvarez-Clavijo said.