Tar Heel veteran prepares for career in Air Force public affairs

Caitlin Russell spent the past six years working on public affairs in the Air Force, flying in Black Hawks and documenting military training exercises. Now she's in Chapel Hill gaining new skills to take her career to the next level.

Caitlin Russell outside.
(Photo by Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

When Caitlin Russell graduated from high school, she had no idea she could have a career in public relations. It wasn’t until she enlisted in the Air Force in 2016 that the career path set in.

“I just didn’t really know about it,” she said. “But looking back, it makes sense. I’ve always been a very creative person. I’ve always liked English class and reading. It made sense.”

She spent the next six years as a public affairs photojournalist, first as a public affairs specialist with the 673rd Air Base Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and then as a news desk editor for the Defense Media Agency’s Air Force Production Office at Fort Meade, Maryland.

The new direction led to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities while supporting the Air Force’s mission.

“I got to fly on Black Hawks and take photos out the door. I’ve gotten to go out with the Marines on some of their training exercises out in the middle of nowhere Alaska,” Russell said. “I got to dangle my feet out of an MC-130 and just take photos.”

To take her public relations career to the next level, Russell has turned to Carolina and the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, where she is studying advertising and public relations with the hope of returning to the Air Force as a civilian public affairs officer.

The transition back to college was always the plan for the Tar Heel, who started working toward her associate degree in business administration from Southern New Hampshire University while enlisted. Carolina was one of only two schools Russell applied to for her four-year degree.

Now a sophomore in the Hussman School, Russell is utilizing her professional experience from the Air Force in the classroom to hone her abilities. Even though she spent six years working in the field full-time, she says being back in the classroom is helping her better prepare for her return to public affairs.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot,” she said. “I’m learning more about the details of public affairs. It’s more of getting into the nitty gritty, not just the overall aspects of the job.”

But she’s doing more than learning at Carolina. Russell transitioned out from the Air Force in September as a staff sergeant and is now adjusting to civilian life and building a new community. She knew that adjustment wouldn’t always be easy and kept that in mind when determining where to go to school.

“I wanted a school that had good military support,” she said.

That support has largely come from the Carolina Veterans Resource Center, a hub for services and resources dedicated to our University’s veterans and military dependents. Her academic career started at the center’s Bootprint to Heelprint, an orientation program specifically for veterans, and she has been an active member of the center ever since.

“If I didn’t have the Carolina Veterans Resource Center, I don’t think I would have made it through this semester,” she said. “I think I would have given up or would have struggled a lot more. When you come from the military, you don’t realize how much you depend on the other people who are the core of it and have an understanding of what you’ve gone through.”

Though the transition to life as a college student and a civilian has been more difficult at times than she has expected, the community of Tar Heel veterans and center has provided much-needed support as she works toward her academic and career goals of returning to serve in a different capacity.

“Having this experience and the knowledge will really help me when I go back into the world where I was,” Russell said. “I feel like I’m a much stronger writer and have more tools and resources to be ready to do my job better than if I can’t come to Carolina.”