My story isn’t much different than those of my fellow Champlain graduates. It has taken a long time for us all to navigate life’s ups and downs to get here, to graduation. We’ve all faced adversity, disruption, self-doubt, and exhaustion. But with the help of our support structures - both at Champlain and at home - we have proven our mettle and persevered.
A Military Career Leads to a Higher Education Journey
My college journey began in the early 1990s, when my Marine Corps roommate and good friend Robert enrolled in courses on-base. Robert tried to get me to enroll with him, but I was dismissive. I grew up with modest means in the coal fields of southern West Virginia, and had barely graduated high school, opting to join the Marines instead of pursuing higher education. I thought that if I couldn’t perform well in high school, what was the point of going to college? I gave Robert a hard pass each time he asked me to join him in his classes, but his excitement in sharing what he learned stuck with me.
A few years later, at a different duty station, I found myself serving as the executive secretary for the commanding officer of my unit. One Friday afternoon, the commanding officer, Jim, called me into his office out of the blue to speak with me about college. Jim built up my self-confidence, telling me that I had it in me to get a college education, and that doing so would help me in my career with the Marine Corps, and in whatever I did after that. He saw something better in me than I saw myself.
That discussion got me thinking about my old roommate, Robert, and his excitement about college. Jim's encouragement, my recollection of Robert's enthusiasm for higher education, and the financial support of military tuition assistance, finally convinced me to enroll in my first college course: Intro to Psychology.
Using Military Tuition Assistance to Pursue My Degree Online
It was a traditional classroom-based course that met weekly for a couple of hours in the evening. For the first couple of classes, I let the high school me cast doubt on my chances for success. But one of the Marines I worked with, my good friend Debbie, was enrolled in the course with me. She encouraged me, asking me to trust that she and the instructor wouldn’t let me fail. We drove to class together, and the distraction and laughter we always shared during our ride began to put me at ease for class each night. I began to realize that my success depended on being relaxed and cheerful and not on being nervous about failing.
From that point, I used tuition assistance to complete online courses on and off at other schools over the remainder of my Marine Corps career. When I retired, I used the G.I. Bill to transfer to Champlain. And now here I am, 25 years after my journey began.
The Superheroes in My Life Who Pushed Me to Reach My Goals
While three Marines were a catalyst for my slow-speed pursuit of a degree, my rock, my muse, and my daily inspiration has been my wife Sharon. I’m sure each of you have someone special with whom you couldn’t wait to share something you learned in class, someone who reminds you of your goals and aspirations, someone who helped you curse at a TI-84 when it wouldn’t do what you want.
I had a strong push last year, completing eight courses in ten months. And while Sharon became fond of calling herself a homework widow, she was much more than that. She was the spark each time my energy was drained, and she has shared in the sacrifices that have gotten me to this point.
We can all give a big thank you to the superheroes in our lives who helped us get to this point. I’m sure all of my fellow graduates have their own superheroes, just like we're a superheroes to others, either intentionally or not. All superheroes have an origin story, and I see my graduation from Champlain as the culmination of my mine. The moment I saw my diploma, the reality sank in. As one of us posted on social media, “it’s officially official” and another posted, “I feel complete now.” Hear, hear!
We all have our own reasons for pursuing a college degree. I did not start my journey with Champlain, but I am so proud to have ended it here. The support and expertise Champlain provides, along with its novel and affordable tuition model, allow students to focus energies more on getting a strong education and less on how to pay for it. And that’s how it should be. I was helped a great deal financially through military tuition assistance and the GI Bill. All of us graduates are fortunate to have had the opportunity, support, and means to achieve this milestone.
I’ve long considered a bachelor’s degree my starting point, not my destination. When I submitted the final assignment for my final course, my wife asked me, “what’s next?” Now that I have achieved this, what am I going to do about it? One of my superpowers is storytelling. I intend to continue using that superpower to encourage and inspire others to enroll in college or a trade school. And where I have influence, I aim to seek ways to ease the financial burden for those who need it. No matter our background or upbringing, we all have something to contribute, and a solid education extends our reach.
I want to congratulate all of my fellow 2020 graduates, and leave you with the same question my wife asked me: What’s next? What do you dare to do now?
Charles "Al" Halstead is a 2020 Champlain College Online graduate with a B.S. in Integrated Studies.