Balancing military service and student life

This Veterans Day, I’m thrilled to introduce Abbey Beem, a senior at UW–Madison who serves in both the National Guard and ROTC. She also represents Student Veterans of America – UW–Madison as a member of my Cabinet of Student Leaders. She recently joined Student Affairs’ Payton Wade and University Veteran Services Director Joe Rasmussen for a conversation on the latest episode of “The Lounge” to talk about the challenges and opportunities of balancing public service and student life. She also shared with us in a follow-up Q&A what inspired her to serve and how the campus community can best support its military-connected students.

– Lori Reesor, PhD, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs

The Lounge and University Veterans Services

Follow-up Q&A with Abbey Beem

Tell us about yourself and how you chose UW-Madison.

I’m originally from Monticello, Iowa, but moved to Waunakee, Wisconsin, just before my senior year of high school after attending basic training over the summer. After graduating, I attended advanced individual training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, as a combat medic. I started school at UW–Madison in the spring of 2019 and joined Army ROTC on campus. I have been involved in that program while also serving in the Wisconsin National Guard during my time as a student. I am currently a senior majoring in life science communications and am immensely grateful for everything the department has to offer. I chose UW–Madison because during my initial tour, I immediately felt at home, and that has not changed.

What inspired you to volunteer with the National Guard/ROTC?

My dad served as an enlisted Army infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division in Somalia during the early ‘90s. I always wanted to be like my dad when I grew up, so it was no surprise to my family when I enlisted as a medic in the National Guard in 2017. My uncle was a crew chief on CH-47 Chinook helicopters for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and passed away during a night training mission when their helicopter crashed. His life and death tremendously impacted the way my dad raised me. Army ROTC has afforded me the opportunity to commission as a second lieutenant this spring as an aeromedical evacuations officer. I will be piloting UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters with the Wisconsin National Guard. This is extremely exciting for me, but also extremely humbling as the career I am pursuing is to honor my uncle and my dad.

What does public service as a member of the military mean to you?

I have always loved helping people and prioritized volunteer opportunities because they often lead to meaningful discussions and to creating a healthy community. The Army is a profession whose purpose is not only to “deploy, fight, and win our Nation’s wars,” but one that is dedicated to public service. To me, this includes acting as an honorable and trustworthy member, dedicated to serving all members of the community. I work to live by these values in and out of uniform. Being in the National Guard and participating in ROTC allows for many volunteer opportunities. Army ROTC specifically has been fortunate to work with the Open Seat Food Pantry and Porchlight to positively impact our campus and Madison-area community.

What does your typical month look like, balancing school and service responsibilities?

Army ROTC obligations include physical training from 6–7 a.m. at minimum every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. As a cadet, I also attend military science lectures and a leadership lab on Thursdays from 2:15 until 5:15 p.m. or later. These are the bare minimum requirements for the program. We are also expected to participate in color guard events for games, volunteer with various community organizations, train for other events or competitions, and occasionally participate in field training exercises. With the National Guard, I attend drill in West Bend, Wisconsin, for 2–4 days each month, so I often commute on Thursdays and miss Friday classes. In my first couple of years as a student at UW, especially while taking larger general education courses, this balance was especially difficult. Now that I am in major-specific courses and have a better opportunity to build rapport and relationships with my professors, it has become easier to balance school and service. Communication and understanding from faculty when I need to be gone has been essential to finding this balance.

What are some ways our campus community can best support students in service?

A supportive and informed faculty is key. Specific academic advising and tutoring services dedicated to this population would be tremendously beneficial. The military-affiliated population on our campus is diverse, and many are atypical students who started college later, may be married with kids, and possibly haven’t been in school for a few years to more than a decade. Higher education is a different

kind of battlefield, and our campus is falling short in supporting this group. The additional stress of potentially coping with PTSD-related conditions makes the experience even more difficult. The experience is that UHS is extremely backed up; the Veterans Hospital requires a commute; and regular talk therapies can be expensive. Specialized and accessible mental health services for military-affiliated students would help lower this burden tremendously.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Being a full-time student and service member is a big commitment and takes time away from being a normal young-adult college student — missed games or time with friends and using “free” time to catch up on homework. There is added stress in knowing one could leave at any time, and faculty not being armed with the knowledge to support them. COVID and the election tension of 2020 really highlighted this as many students had to go away on State Active Duty (SAD) orders. Military-affiliated students like our veterans, current service and ROTC members, are a huge asset to campus. They are global leaders and self-sufficient learners, but they still struggle. We could all do more to provide the accessible support they need to fulfill their service and to be successful students.

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