Nominations are closed. Come back February 3 to meet the candidates!

LeNaya Hezel

Branch: Navy

Duty Station: Pentagon

Number of Deployments: 3

Number of PCS's: 2

Share your military spouse story:
It started with falling in love with a submarine officer. Cliché, I know, but bear with me on this. While navigating life as a military partner, I decided to pivot from singing professionally to a career in higher education. In writing, the decision and process to pivot careers sound more effortless than the process itself. Until that point, I had been training to be a professional classical singer for fourteen years—singing was a part of my identity. As I learned Navy life demands, I realized that the world had something more to offer than making music. This realization was the catalyst to see where I could perform not on a stage but in an area of strategic educational opportunities to empower underrepresented populations, including the military-connected community, to build diverse and inclusive communities. Falling in love helped me learn about myself personally and professionally. Together we navigated the transitions from being an active-duty submarine family to the reserves and from a stay-at-home parent to a dual-income family while maintaining our commitment to serving in various ways in our community. Today, I am the CEO of NayceQuest LLC, a consulting company to shift organizations from one-and-done diversity seminars to intentional inclusive cultures. Being a military spouse is not my sole identity. Still, it took becoming a military spouse to highlight how my identities as a Catholic, bi-racial, parent, entrepreneur, and advocate for inclusive communities contribute to the military community.

Share an example of your leadership experience within the military community:
When the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect, and because I worked at a university, many crewmates on my partner’s boat came to me with questions on using the benefit. I could hear the sense of frustration in their stories of navigating bureaucratic organizations that did not talk to each other. To equip myself to answer questions, I enrolled in a graduate class to build my knowledge of higher education supporting military-connected students. In a group project, I had the opportunity to study how a community college used a grassroots movement to serve military-connected students. The project opened my eyes to see that there was more than a disconnect of information about the use of GI Bill benefits, but also a systemic military-civilian divide. Instead of referring servicemembers on a scavenger hunt for information, I sought a career to bridge educational opportunities for military-connected members that led to achieving personal, academic, and professional goals.

Describe your involvement in the military community:
The frustration I heard from servicemembers in 2008 motivated me to bridge networks that span military and civilian experiences and race, religion, sexual identity, and other identities. I have served as a Veterans Office Director and a sociologist specializing in underrepresented populations. These experiences showed me how the intersection of identities in the military-connected community was easily undersold or misunderstood inside and outside the military community. Through counseling military-connected students, mentoring transitioning servicemembers, and collaborating with service organizations, we collectively build networks to connect resources and uplift our diverse experiences. My involvement is to empower others in the military-connected community to see their potential and talent so that organizations that often overlook particular identities now see the value of having them as a part of their communities too.

Describe how you support your community:
The tag line at NayceQuest is, “Go beyond saying the right thing and do the right thing.” Today, companies and organizations designate themselves as “military-friendly” or “value diversity,” but the words may not align with actions. As a sociologist, I use applied research to analyze what an organization says compared to what an organization does to identify action items to align words with actions. My work is collaborative in nature. I listen, ask questions, gather informative data, and build relationships among a diverse professional network where we can collectively learn areas of strengths and grow to make our communities more inclusive in our actions and words.

What do you advocate for? Why?
“You are out of touch to fully know the population.” In a meeting discussing academic pathways for military-connected students, this sentiment was stated to me. At first, I took the feedback personally, but over time I have used the experience as motivation to highlight how the military-connected community is not a monolith. In fact, no one in that conversation fully understood the military-connected student population because there is minimal research to help us understand who they are and their diverse experiences. Additionally, there are minimal veteran service organizations with leadership representative of the diverse identities within the military-connected community to raise awareness of the plethora of experiences we bring. I hope that my work can bring data-driven understanding about our community so that we can strengthen services and resources to better serve members of the community.

How have you spread the message of your platform/advocacy?
Any effort of impact to shift cultures to be inclusive requires a sense of trust and collaboration. As a Pat Tillman Foundation and George W. Bush Veteran Leadership Program Scholar, I have benefited from building meaningful networking relationships to collaborate on economic and wellness opportunities for the military-connected community. I am not a subject matter expert in all topics of diversity and higher education, therefore, I rely on my network to collaboratively work together to create solutions to complex problems and share our work with our extended networks. I author blog posts on the NayceQuest website on military-connected topics and overlapping identities. I have served in national discussions on career opportunities for veterans in higher education and advising colleges and universities to make their campuses more inclusive for military-connected members.

What do you hope to accomplish with the AFI Military Spouse of the Year® title?
I hope to continue building out the AFI Military Spouse community by bringing in my network to serve as a resource to military spouses and expand my network to learn and grow as an advocate. Our work to support the military-connected community is not done in isolation but rather through collaboration. I hope to amplify the impact of military spouses who are often overlooked when it comes to making an impact in our communities. Collectively, we can synergize our passion, strength, and talents to celebrate the military-connected community as diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Nominations

LeNaya Crandall Hezel is a diversity, equity, and inclusion organizational strategist. While pursuing her PhD in Sociology at George Mason Univ., she founded NayceQuest LLC to guide organizations as they explore, dive into a deeper understanding, and discover meaningful ways to shift our culture to be equitable and inclusive. LeNaya has over a decade of experience as a higher education professional supporting underrepresented student populations. LeNaya is a 2021 Veterans Leadership Program Scholar with George W. Bush Institute and a Pat Tillman Foundation Scholar. Previous to George Mason University, she served as the inaugural Veterans Office Director at Georgetown Univ and a Certifying Official at The George Washington Univ. She holds a Master of Arts in Higher Education Administration from The George Washington Univ. and a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance from the Univ. of Maryland. LeNaya is a proud military spouse to a U.S. Navy Officer and mother to three spirited children
- by James White IV