WASHINGTON -- Three years ago, Spc. Natnael Getahun knew that he chose the wrong path in life as he struggled to stay motivated while attending the University of Pittsburgh.
"I didn't like what I was studying," Getahun said. "I was around 19 years old and attending college on an engineering scholarship at the time."
Getahun needed a change in his life as he reviewed all of his options, he said. If he switched his major, he would give up his scholarship and have to pay for classes on his own -- a risk he was not willing to take.
He ultimately decided to take a chance and join the Army to capitalize on the military's education benefits and possibly make it a career. Little did he know, his service would later help him be accepted to a prestigious research university.
Getahun initially considered serving the Army as a cryptologic linguist, but was hesitant to enlist for an initial six-year term, he said.
"I didn't think I was a very mature person at the time [and] I felt that the Army could help," he said, who is now 22 years old. "They could help me take a step back and find what I actually want to do in my life."
He eventually decided on a three-year contract in the infantry, with plans to reenlist as an unmanned aircraft systems operator.
"I told my parents, and they were understandably upset," Getahun said. "In their eyes, I was throwing away a scholarship to study engineering [and] I had not expressed any interest in joining the military.”
Born in Ethiopia, but raised in Texas and Pennsylvania, Getahun's parents tried to convince him to change his mind.
Still, Getahun remained determined to find his own path as he went off to basic military training. He is currently assigned to 1st Armored Division’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company Brigade, 40th Brigade Engineering Battalion, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Bliss, Texas, and deployed to Kuwait for Operation Spartan Shield.
Throughout his Army career, Getahun looked for ways to return to college, and one day major in philosophy and applied math.
As he searched, Getahun came across Service to School, a nonprofit organization that provides service members and veterans free college and graduate application counseling services.
After he applied, he was quickly matched up with a mentor, who just happened to attend the University of Chicago and spoke highly of its "Stand Together" program.
The Stand Together program provides educational access for underrepresented students and veterans, in addition to scholarship opportunities, Getahun said. Military members applying to the university receive a dedicated admissions advisor to help them with the process.
"My mentor basically gave me the confidence to apply and feel like I have a fair chance of getting into the University of Chicago," he said. "He just told me to ignore the acceptance rate and submit the best application I could."
With just under a year left in his enlistment, Getahun submitted his application for the 2021 school year. The prestige of the school seemed far outside his reach, he said.
Getahun’s admissions advisor later responded with an interview request Oct. 26 with Jim Nondorf, the university's dean of admissions.
"I came into it really nervous," Getahun said, as he answered a series of admissions-related questions.
As he sat through the interview, his supervisor and brigade leadership quietly entered into the room and stood behind him.
"I was confused -- and was trying to figure out what was going on," he said. "I thought, maybe they were just here for moral support."
With all personnel in place, the dean unveiled his surprise efforts. Getahun later found out that his leadership helped coordinate this event about a week prior.
"It is my great pleasure and honor to actually admit you ... to the University of Chicago," Nondorf said during the video meeting. "Welcome aboard, and congratulations."
Awestruck, but grateful, for the announcement, Getahun didn't honestly believe he had a chance to attend the university.
"For the last 18 months, he has worked for me ... consistently bringing his A-game," said Sgt. Maj. Jeremy Prickette, the 2nd ABCT operations sergeant major. "He is always seeking personal and professional growth and constantly demonstrating his dedication to mission accomplishment through hard work and discipline.”
Col. Michael Wagner, the brigade commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kohunsky, the brigade’s senior enlisted advisor, then both presented Getahun with a brigade coin.
"He does not accept failure, and he will never quit," Prickette added during the video call. "He completes all tasks at the highest standards and is a valued member of the team. It is our honor and privilege to serve with Spc. Getahun."
It took several days for everything to sink in, he said. Getahun plans to spend his last seven months in the Army working to become a better Soldier as he prepares for his first year at the University of Chicago next October.
Getahun will have access to veterans' housing, community and social programs, and career counseling services through the school's veteran services program. The university will also pay for tuition costs that exceed the GI Bill’s tuition amount, leaving him close to debt-free upon graduation.
Overall, Getahun said he was grateful for his time in the Army and will continue to apply the many skills he learned throughout his collegiate and civilian careers. One such skill is time management, which could prove vital when he starts his classes.
"I am a lot better with money, which is going to help me while I'm in college and the rest of my life," he said. "I am definitely a lot more mature now, which I attribute to the Army. I'm grateful for everything, and I am excited to attend university next year."