After 5 years in military intelligence and 2 years at a monastery, he’ll graduate from Northeastern as an engineer

headshot of christian etherton
Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Christian Etherton is an industrial engineering undergraduate at Northeastern, a one-time college dropout, and a former Army sergeant who followed five years in military intelligence with two years of working and living at a monastery.

In his newest role as master of ceremonies at the university’s Veterans Day ceremony on Friday, Etherton will be summing up his experiences as a veteran at Northeastern.

“I’ve been interviewing [for jobs] a lot—I’m about to graduate—and when people ask if I can relate some sort of value that’s tied to a past experience, I always go back to the military,” says Etherton, who serves as president of Northeastern’s Student Veterans Organization. “At the ceremony I’ll be talking about the military, and how developed the program for veterans is here at Northeastern and how it’s so awesome to have found that community here.”

The annual ceremony will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at Northeastern’s Veterans Memorial on Neal F. Finnegan Plaza. The keynote address will be delivered by Billie J. Farrell, the first woman to command the U.S.S. Constitution. (The event on the Boston campus will be streamed on Northeastern’s Facebook page). 

Etherton’s journey has led him across a variety of frontiers. As a senior at Bucknell University, he was one semester short of graduating in geography when he abruptly quit.

headshot of christian etherton
“My curiosity has not been satisfied,” Etherton says of his remarkable journey. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“It was the discipline that had the highest number of classes that I thought I’d be interested in—that’s how I chose it,” he says. “But I just knew it wasn’t for me and I was burnt out on school.

“I was worried that if I got hit by a bus, my headstone would say something like, ‘He did some of his homework some of the time,’” Etherton explains. “I felt I hadn’t contributed anything in life—anything big—and I was wasting time.”

He soon enlisted with the Army. It was January 2010 and the U.S. was fighting post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“My mom was very scared,” Etherton says of the possibility he would be deployed overseas.

Etherton was assigned to Fort Gordon, Georgia, as a cryptologic linguist and command language program manager. His duties included translating Pashto, an official language of Afghanistan that is also spoken in northern Pakistan. He was a team leader, squad leader and platoon sergeant charged with leading as many as 30 soldiers.

“I dropped out of school because I wanted to travel and I didn’t want to be sitting down and doing homework,” he says. “And here I was in rural Georgia, sitting at a desk and doing language maintenance—like homework. But I got an interesting, high-level perspective on war. I left healthier than when I went in. I gained some leadership skills. And I made great friends, which was the biggest thing I left with.”

Did he feel as though he contributed?

“I think I did,” says Etherton, who is limited in what he can say about his military intelligence experiences. “I definitely think I had marginal value. I feel very confident that the things that I did helped save lives, directly and indirectly.”

Recognizing that he was being steered toward an administrative position, Etherton left the Army at the end of his five-year commitment. He worked in heavy construction for six months at a new university library site in his home state of Maryland. Then he accepted a year-long monastic internship at the Society of St. John The Evangelist, a monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He spent another year managing the monastery’s guesthouse.

He acknowledges it was an unlikely career move.

“When I got out of the Army, my family had become a little bit religious, and I couldn’t really connect with them on that level,” Etherton says. “Kind of like with the military, I felt like the best way to understand it was to dive in. I found that the brothers’ wisdom was super helpful for the years that I was living and working there.”

The brothers helped Etherton identify his next calling as an industrial engineer. He was drawn to Northeastern in part by its affinity for veterans, which includes maximum financial support for the Yellow Ribbon Program of financial aid.

“It more or less guaranteed that I would graduate without any debt, which was huge for me,” Etherton says. 

About 500 U.S. veterans are students across Northeastern’s global network, says Andy McCarty, director of the university’s Dolce Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers (CAVS). McCarty, who was deployed to Egypt and Qatar with the Air Force, has appreciated Etherton’s ability to fit in with younger students on campus.

“He is such a laid back and warm individual. For him it’s just about living life and having shared experiences,” McCarty says of Etherton. “I’ve certainly seen others struggle with the ages and the lived experiences being so vastly different. But he’s seemed excited and happy to be here.”

McCarty hopes people who attend the ceremony on Friday will recognize universal qualities in Etherton and the fellow veterans he introduces.

“They chose to do something we think is special, but they are normal people,” McCarty says. “Veterans come from all walks of life. No part of the country and no political party has a copyright on patriotism. It takes everyone from every corner of the United States to make the military the mighty organization that it is.”

As Etherton looks back on the past dozen years, he realizes his restless journey has brought him closer to a sense of fulfillment.

“I was quite passive. I had a whole bunch of questions and didn’t know how to take a first step,” he says of his initial college years. “Going through the military taught me to be more comfortable taking those first steps. There’s a charged phrase called ‘violence of action’ that’s about throwing yourself into an action, and I feel I’ve learned to employ that a lot in my life. 

“And then at the same time,” he adds, “my curiosity has not been satisfied.”

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