In 1944, with the passing of the GI Bill, Pittsburgh colleges and universities were overwhelmed by an influx of new students. Carlow University—then Mount Mercy College—stepped up to the plate, offering veterans admission to what had traditionally been a women's college.
Today, Carlow continues to builds upon that history. And vets who are students—like recent graduate Rick Rickman ’16—say military service directly impacts their career paths.
Rickman, a native Texan who now lives in Cranberry Township, Pa., served multiple tours of duty overseas, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a member of the Army Airborne Rangers.
Rickman recalls being stationed in a house in Fallujah in 2005, where the US troop members spoke the same language, learned the local customs, and ate the same food as their Iraqi hosts.
The Iraqis were a bit uncertain of the Americans at first—for good reason. The Rangers had been taught Syrian Arabic. Rickman says the difference was like English spoken with a Louisiana accent compared to English spoken in Maine. The Iraqis’ attitude changed, however, once they realized how different the US forces’ approach to combat was from their own.
“We [the United States] fight from the front,” Rickman says. “We earned their respect.”
When he completed his service overseas, Rickman was stationed as a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) instructor at a central Pennsylvania college. That’s when he decided to take advantage of his GI Bill benefits and earn his bachelor of science in nursing (BSN)—a choice inspired by his experience caring for the wounded while in combat.
“The GI Bill is amazing in what it has done,” he says. “There are a lot of males going into nursing because of it.”
Eager to take an even more active role in patient care, Rickman enrolled in the Master of Science in Nursing Family Nurse Practitioner (MSN-FNP) program at Carlow. Living in Cranberry Township, he liked the fact that he could take classes close to home at Carlow’s facility within the Regional Learning Alliance in Cranberry.
“Sometimes as an RN,” he says, “even when you know what needs to be done, you have to wait for a physician to write the order. As a family nurse practitioner, I will be able to make more decisions.”
One of Rickman’s classmates, Amy Miller ’16, an Eighty Four, Pa. resident, enlisted in the Army Reserve after high school and joined ROTC while earning her BSN at Duquesne University. After graduation, she was stationed in Hawaii as a nurse on a 24-bed medical-surgical unit.
As an officer and a team leader, Miller says she commanded a high level of respect—something she missed once she began working as a civilian nurse. She decided that a career as a family nurse practitioner might help her make best use of leadership skills she acquired while enlisted.
“Carlow made it a seamless transition for me,” she says.
Miller completed her MSN-FNP degree at Carlow while working as a nurse in a local doctor’s office and caring for two young children—with a third on the way. She says Carlow’s online and hybrid classes give her the flexibility she needed to pursue an expanded role in healthcare.
On the flip side, Carlow undergraduate students who blend academics with military training also say service is inspiring—and positively impacts their lives. Justin Harshbarger ’16, a biology graduate from Somerset, Pa., joined ROTC his sophomore year, and Emily Slopek ’16, an education graduate from Monaca, Pa., is a member of the Army National Guard.
Slopek completed nine weeks of Basic Combat Training followed by Advanced Individual Training. “I’m the kind of person who second guesses herself all the time. Basic training teaches you that doubt will either get you in trouble or get you hurt.” Training greatly boosted Slopek’s confidence, motivating her to run for and secure a position as Student Government Association president and also to forge ahead toward her future career as a teacher.
Like Slopek, Harshbarger says enlisting taught him structure. Getting up for 6 a.m. training will do that to you.
“From my freshman year until graduation, I saw a 250 percent difference in me as a person,” he says.
In addition to life as a student and an Army Reservist, Harshbarger was also a member of Carlow’s cross-country team, a first-year mentor, a participant in Alternative Spring Break in Laredo, Texas, and a committee chair for the Student Government Association.
Harshbarger aims to be a detective for fraud investigations—a goal he’s working toward as a student in Carlow’s Master of Science in Fraud and Forensics program, and as an intern with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office.
Despite adjustments to civilian life—or strict schedules imposed by military training programs—these students have another thing in common. They wouldn’t do it any other way, and the civilian world will benefit because of that.
“I always had this respect for the military,” says Miller. “It just gave me goosebumps to be part of it.”
Harshbarger can relate.
“When I raised my hand and took the oath, it changed me,” he says. “You look at the flag differently. You listen to the words in the national anthem differently.”
And if the nation needs them to suddenly change their plans?
“You roll with it,” Slopek says. Spoken like a true representative of Carlow University and the United States military.
By Drew Wilson