By Gil Klein, special to ConnectingVets.com
It was Alicia Hunt’s mother who pushed her to join the Air Force right out of high school, but it was her uncle who challenged her to pursue her education.
Now, as a staff sergeant deployed in Afghanistan, Hunt has received a new University of Maryland University College award that helps her achieve both goals.
Less than five years into her Air Force career, Hunt already has completed her undergraduate education through UMUC. The funds she will receive from the Gen. John W. Vessey Student of the Year Award will help her accelerate her education so that it is not tied to the Military Tuition Assistance timetable.
Hunt is working on a UMUC master’s degree that specializes in health care administration. It is preparing her for a new career in the Air Force in diagnostic imaging, working with Magnetic Resonance Imaging and nuclear medicine.
With her deployment to Afghanistan nearing an end, she said she will first return to her home base at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida before heading to Ft. Sam Houston in her hometown of San Antonio to launch her new work in Air Force medicine.
Hunt, who grew up in San Antonio, is one of three children and a loyal Texan.
“Everything’s bigger and better in Texas,” she says.
Her mother insisted that the Air Force would give her some direction in life. Hunt’s Uncle William, the only member of her family who had attained a college degree, encouraged her to get more education.
“When I was younger, he would joke around saying, ‘you’re not going to get any more degrees than I have,’” she said. “It was kind of a push for me to do better. When I graduated, I talked to him and said I was working on my master’s degree. He said, ‘You already beat me now.’”
While Hunt had taken a couple of classes through Central Texas College, she said she became serious about her degree when she arrived at Eglin in 2015 and enrolled with UMUC. With the help of Joshua Henson, her Military Education Coordinator there, she learned how many college credits she could earn from both the training she already had completed with the Air Force and through the College Level Examination Program (CLEP).
“I would not be here without his help and guidance,” Hunt said of Henson.
She said she liked how all of her courses could be taken online so that she could keep studying no matter where her military service took her. She learned to keep ahead in her courses, especially while in Afghanistan, because she never knew when internet service would be interrupted.
In less than two years, she had finished her undergraduate degree and eagerly started her master’s program. She was so driven to finish her graduate work that she could not wait for the Military Tuition Assistance money to catch up with her and paid for her courses out of her own pocket.
Chris Tipton, director of UMUC’s Veterans Initiatives, said rarely does the university see military students who qualify for MTA actually pay for the classes themselves. Hunt had no idea that she would win the Vessey Award when she made the payments.
“Her progression and her commitment to her education was a significant factor in Hunt winning the scholarship,” Tipton said.
While her education will help advance her career, she said the values she has learned in her military service have provided her the moral foundation for her life.
“The military has taught me to do it myself,” she said. “Integrity is tantamount to everything that we do. You have to trust the people you work with. They have to be able to trust in you. At the end of the day, someone else’s life might be in your hands. They have to trust that you can do your job.”
When she looks back on her life, she thanks her mother for the push.
“What I am doing now is amazing,” she said. “I would not be where I am right now without the opportunities the military afforded me.”
The award’s namesake, Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., is the only chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who began his military career as an enlisted man. He, too, took advantage of UMUC courses during his military career to advance in rank. After he retired, he was appointed the first chairman of the university’s Board of Visitors.
This Veterans Day, the Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. Student of the Year Award was inaugurated, and a UMUC Conference Center ballroom named in his honor, at a university ceremony commemorating his life.
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