From the Navy to WSU, Shawn Henderson has aimed to save lives

  • Drawing on her own past troubles for inspiration, social work and criminal justice third-year Shawn Henderson seeks to advocate for suffering youth in the mental health system.
  • As an accomplished sailor on carrier decks, Shawn developed the confidence and resilience to sustain herself through difficult times.
  • She was one of the first females to work aboard a carrier deck and one of four female licensed aircraft mechanics in the world during the 1990s.


During the late 1980s, Shawn Henderson remembers sitting in her car and staring at a brick wall. She was a young, LGBTQ individual.

“You know, the world has not always been kind to me,” Shawn said. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s, people tried to kill me. In the ‘90s, people would throw things at me. In the 2000s, they would just look at you.”

Shawn has spent portions of her life in neighborhoods with high crime rates and poverty. She has witnessed young people dealing with immense pain through anger and addiction.

Now a third-year in social work and criminal justice at WSU, Shawn has dedicated herself to advocating for young people trapped in the mental health and correctional systems.

“WSU has allowed me to pick the field that I wanted to be at 18, but didn’t know how to get there. Didn’t have the means,” Shawn said.

When Shawn looked at that brick wall from her car, she could imagine only one way to get past it.

She joined the U.S. Navy.

It was the early 1990s, around the time of Operation Desert Storm and the First Gulf War. She advanced quickly and was one of the first females to work on a carrier deck.

I came back here and I found you guys, and the student body, faculty and staff are so good to me. WSU is another family.
Shawn Henderson, social work and criminal justice third-year

Through seemingly incredible luck, Shawn received extra training to become a “white shirt” final point checker, performing the last maintenance checks on aircraft as they attached to the carrier catapult for launch.

“That was a rush!” Shawn said. “You’re looking for anything bent, broken or leaking that’s going to down that airplane so it can’t hit the boat when it’s coming back. Those pilots’ lives were in my hands.”

After a few years, Shawn left the Navy and returned to Kansas. She worked with success as a certified aircraft mechanic in Wichita and moved to Seattle, WA for five years to work for the Boeing Airplane Co.

She didn’t pick aviation for her career. She became bored and worked other jobs on the side.

“I was never into aviation. I got into aviation because the Navy directed me that way,” Shawn said.

Throughout her career, her LGBTQ identity and experiences in underprivileged environments led her back to help those who could not help themselves.

However, she doesn’t believe that it’s her role to work directly with suffering people. It’s exhausting for her and she knows that she would be stronger in another role.

When the Navy gave Shawn the opportunity to go to college, she decided to become a Shocker and study social work so that she could advocate in government and political institutions for suffering people.

“It’s not about money. It’s about a calling I’ve found,” Shawn said.

She still believes it was a solid decision.

“I came back here and I found you guys, and the student body, faculty and staff are so good to me. WSU is another family,” Shawn said.