By Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsJune 10, 2019
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (June 10, 2019) -- Sometimes life gets in the way. Schedules get cluttered, priorities shift, and all of a sudden, earning an academic degree seems like navigating a never-ending obstacle course.
For military community members, this is an all-too familiar-feeling, but it led them all to one place. Graduation Day.
The annual Fort Drum Graduation Recognition Ceremony on June 6 was a celebration of success for 268 Soldiers, veterans, family members and Department of the Army civilians who received academic certificates and degrees in the past year.
Despite deployments and training exercises, while working fulltime jobs, building careers, raising families, volunteering their time and services and maintaining personal and professional readiness, they succeeded.
Among them was Staff Sgt. Matthew Holt, with C Battery, 3rd Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. Holt, a howitzer section chief, said that finishing his degree was a work in progress that spanned two decades.
"This was important to me, because I started it in 2001," he said. "So finally I made up my mind to finish it. I've got kids in college now, and what would they think if I didn't finish it?"
Holt said that his military career always kept him busy, and so college was always the next thing on his list.
"It was pretty challenging," he said. "There was one class that I missed six or seven times out of 15 because we were training every other week. I just kept emailing the teacher explaining why I had to miss class, and he would email me the assignments."
Holt said he felt fortunate that the Jefferson Community College faculty accommodated him that way.
"It's nice to have people who will work with you," he said. "The whole time I kept thinking if I took this class I would fail it because I was too busy. But I did the work, and I came out with an A in every class."
Holt credited his girlfriend for giving him the support he needed to achieve his associate degree.
"Between the two of us, we have six kids together, and she helped me out a lot," he said. "I couldn't have done this without her."
Now that he has done what he once thought was impossible, Holt encourages other Soldiers to pursue higher education.
"My advice would be to stop making excuses," he said. "Man, I made so many excuses along the way and that's what held me back. I always said I was too busy and didn't have any time for school. We spent so much time at night sitting on the couch and watching TV. So I just took a lot of that time and spent it on the computer at night taking classes. It's more exciting learning than dulling my brain watching TV."
This summer, Holt will deploy on an overseas assignment but he said that he will continue to pursue more educational goals.
"I'm just getting started," he said. "There's so much I want to learn. And you know what? The Army takes away all your excuses for not doing it, and they make it so it doesn't cost you too much either."
Holt was one of the student speakers for the ceremony at the Multipurpose Auditorium. He was joined by Amanda Blair, who graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA and earned an associate degree in business management and a bachelor's degree in psychology.
A U.S. Air Force spouse and mother to a 5- and 3-year old, Blair said that she married her high school boyfriend and decided to let life be her teacher for a while when they moved to their first duty station in Germany.
"I had always wanted to go to college, but I didn't have the confidence in myself to believe that I could to do it and succeed," she said. "I was afraid to try and fail."
Blair was taking college courses when they were reassigned to Italy, which became challenging once they began raising a family.
"Let's be honest, our college journeys don't look like other people's because we overcome so much in the process," she said. "Deployments, growing families and moving to new places - I admit, sometimes I would be so tired that I wanted to give up, but my faith and my amazing family pushed me and encouraged me to go forward."
By the time they relocated to Fort Drum, Blair was close to completing her degree requirements. However, she discovered an error in her transcripts regarding transfer credits.
"All of my plans changed instantly, and I realized there was no way to complete the needed credits before graduation. For a split second, I saw all of those sleepless nights and hard work, and I felt defeated."
She was determined not to let that feeling overwhelm her and, with renewed resolve. Blair was able to complete the courses on time.
"When I think of the last five years, I am thankful for the struggles and the hard work put in because I have grown my faith and humility and I have learned so much," she said.
Blair was recently accepted into the master's degree in counseling for mental health and wellness program at New York University.
"I knew that I needed to work hard for the grades that would get me into the right master's program and eventually the right doctoral program so that I can use my skills to help the military families that I have grown to love so much," Blair said.
Joe Agresti, Fort Drum Education Center education services officer, congratulated all of the graduates on their achievement. As the nation was remembering the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy, Agresti was reminded of the paratroopers and the jumpmasters who oversaw their training.
He said that jumpmasters make sure every airborne Soldier has the skills and confidence upon exiting the plane to return to the ground safely. Then he asked the graduates to think about the jumpmasters in their lives who helped them achieve goals and to reciprocate that support.
"People along the way - either family members, fellow Soldiers or civilians - who nudged you, who said, 'You can go to that class at Columbia College or Jefferson Community College ... you can succeed,'" he said. "Now I want you to be the jumpmaster for someone else."