Living in a combat zone, serving his country and attending college has been the life of Abe Wade, a communications studies major at Salt Lake Community College since November of 2020.
Wade, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, is currently serving overseas in Afghanistan. Although this is not his first deployment as an enlisted man of eight-and-a-half years, this is the first time he deployed to a combat zone and exchanged his personal time to invest in his educational goals of attending college online.
“The main obstacles with being in a combat zone and going to school are finding reliable internet to get the work done, balancing the different time zones with missions, and getting the readings and homework submitted on time,” Wade said.
Wade lives in a B Hut (barracks hut) with little privacy that is split between what he described as a “tiny wooden board” for separation from another room.
On a normal day, Wade prepares for his duties at 1 a.m. His routine includes personal hygiene, reporting to guards to assemble his equipment, and gearing up with weapons. Wade also needs night vision goggles, a helmet, a vest, eye protection and gloves.
Next, he transitions forward to his BDOC (Base Defense Operations Center), where he stays until 2:30 p.m. Then he returns to his B Hut and hopes that the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation), which provides free internet, allows him reliable internet access to complete assignments before bedtime at 6 p.m.
Wade is one of 1,100 students with military connections — including veterans and dependents — that attend SLCC each semester. SLCC, in turn, provides the resources and flexibility that enables service members and their families to reach their educational goals as they attend to their duties.
Wade credits the Veterans Center and his instructors for helping him navigate the balance between academics and active duty.
“The professors from SLCC are a major help, especially with how flexible they are with making sure I have all the reading materials and tools to make sure I am successful,” Wade said.
In addition to in-person learning, SLCC offers degrees that can be achieved online, which creates a variety of opportunities for anyone around the world, including military service members.
Wade admitted that balancing his responsibilities as a student and a soldier can be challenging because it involves many sacrifices from his personal time, especially belonging to a Brigade Combat Team whose job is to train and deploy. The Veterans Center wants to lessen those obstacles that students of the military face.
Along with Steve Hill, the director of SLCC Veterans Services, the campus veterans centers act as a hub, ready to help service members and their families with their educational goals or obstacles. The centers offer advising, help with VA benefits, a lounge area, computers with internet access and printers.
Utah Army National guardsman Andrew Davila is working to achieve his general studies degree and recently married in 2020. He admitted that he originally had a hard time finding help; the service desk directed him to the Veterans Center once they realized they did not have the resources he was entitled to.
“It took me a little while to find it, and then I was able to start using somewhat of my military benefits,” Davila said. “Just learning about benefits and knowing what I can qualify for helps with bills and everything like that, because college is expensive.”
According to the Military Times, SLCC was rated one of the best colleges for veterans in 2020. Hill, whose father served in the military, connects with service members by valuing one-on-one interaction to explain the importance of their VA benefits.
“We listen and we want to make sure you get your benefits. That’s where we stand out. We make sure that they’re understanding and with us. We make sure you get your benefits on time; that’s our main thing,” Hill said.
Hill goes a step further and keeps military students on track with mid-semester check-ins by phone call when students have a grade of C or lower, especially during the pandemic when service members faced more obstacles.
“I have this theory: When students are failing, nobody knows, and it makes me sad,” Hill said. “We started peer mentoring here. When any student veteran or dependent has a C or lower, we contact them midterm. We say, ‘What can we do to push you to the beat [nautical term for favorable position]? Tutoring? Counseling? Anything you need?’ We will help you with that, so you are successful in that semester instead of [failing].”
Despite the challenges that come with being a student in the military, Wade realizes all of this work will pay off in the future.
“Furthering my education will always set me up for success. Whether I stay in the military or explore the civilian sector, chances are a lot higher to succeed with a degree,” Wade said.