Sometimes the route to your dreams takes curvy, unexpected paths. In Alysa Ambrose's case, it wound her through oceans and continents, where she spent almost 25 years in the U.S. Navy and ultimately served as a captain, achieving command at sea of the USS Gravely. Now she is fulfilling that first dream she had since childhood: attending law school.

"I started in the Navy for four years to pay for college, then they offered post grad school, so I did that for two years and the payback was another three years of service. I stayed on because I was close to the halfway point for retirement consideration and I fell in love with what I was doing in the Navy and for the opportunity to command a destroyer," Ambrose said.

Ambrose was promoted to a captain in the Navy, the equal to a Colonel in the Army. She was commanding officer of the USS Gravely, where she ultimately maintained absolute responsibility for the safety and security of 325 crew members aboard that billion-dollar guided-missile destroyer. She also oversaw and annual operating budget of almost $3 million.

Her naval career took her to 30 countries and on waterways throughout the world where she was deployed six times, mostly in the Persian Gulf and twice on the Gravely. The first female commander of a 5-year-old warship, Ambrose was in Southeast Asian, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern hot spots. One of those deployments was in the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Syria in 2013, during the chemical weapons crisis. There was also an instance in 2016 when the Russian Navy came too close to Ambrose's warship while the Russian ship was trying to interfere with an U.S. aircraft carrier's flight operation.

"They were close enough that we could read the nametags off their shirts," she said. That standoff ended peacefully.

During her accomplished career, Ambrose had three children with her then husband. Being in command of a warship, she was in the unique position where, when not in a blackout, she was able to talk to them most every day.

Upon her retirement, she and her husband separated, and she asked her children where they wanted to settle. They decided on Pittsburgh; Ambrose was originally from the North Hills area. She and her three children -- an older girl and set of boy-girl twins -- moved back in the fall of 2019. Her retirement became official on January 1, 2020, and then a few months later the pandemic hit.

"The kids were well settled and now they were home full-time learning. I needed to be home with them for a while. I was still not sure what I wanted to do, project management or consulting. Nothing excited me enough to consider going back to work for. I watched the news and was always drawn to every Supreme Court story and law-related topics. I thought it [law school] was meant to be," Ambrose said.

Ambrose took the LSAT during the pandemic and applied to the School of Law's Day program. She began classes this past fall and now juggles day school while caring for her three school-aged children, one with special needs.

Ambrose says she is on autopilot with her schedule, tending to her family and getting her readings and work done. It is stress, but a much different kind than overseeing a warship.

"The stress of an academic deadline is very different thing than inbound gunboats. I feel like it's the difference between white noise and noisy noise. I mean there's just this kind of constant level of operation in my life that inherently has stress in it. It is just very different than other real stresses; my special needs child is the highest level of stress for me than any other level. It is very different than most people can understand," Ambrose said.

She enjoys the legal material she is learning and credits her professors for making her feel at home. She said, "They have all been lovely to me and helpful when I'm in a jam. I am very different than most anyone else in the day program. I am decades older than some of my peers and certainly have a different experience set. When professors ask, ‘does anybody know about mortgages or contracts' I have lived that."

She feels at home at Duquesne and in Pittsburgh, which Ambrose said has one of the largest veteran communities in the U.S. without a nearby base. She is on the ACBA Military and Veterans committee and is signed up to work in the School of Law's Veteran's Clinic next year. She maintains bigger goals for her career, and her short-term goal is to work in the DA's office. Over the long-term, Ambrose aspires to become a judge. Ambrose now sees a different horizon than at sea, but her horizon expanding legal education and determination will take her there.

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April 28, 2022