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First NROTC Graduate Since 1973 Is Grateful for the Core—and More

The day after Abigale Wyatt received a bachelor's degree with honors in mathematics from the School of General Studies, she was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, the first Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) graduate at Columbia since 1973. She then headed from Morningside Heights to Pensacola, Fla., for pilot training.

The 26-year-old served 3½ years in the Navy before coming to Columbia in May 2012, part of a program for enlisted sailors to become officers called Seaman to Admiral for the 21st Century. “It was an amazing opportunity,” she says, “and the School of General Studies seemed like the perfect place for someone like me who did not have a traditional education, had taken some time off and spent time in the Navy.”

The School of General Studies was created in 1947 specifically for such "nontraditional" students, especially veterans returning from service in World War II. Of more than 600 student veterans currently enrolled at Columbia, some 300 are undergraduates at General Studies. Wyatt is one of 71 graduating from General Studies alone this year, the most ever.

Although the University has been involved in NROTC since the program was established in 1916, the Columbia program was dissolved in 1969 amid anti-war protests; the last of its students earned their commissions in 1973. Since then several Columbia students have participated in officer training at other institutions, including Nabiha Shaikh (GSAS'14) who attended the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps program at Manhattan College and had a commissioning ceremony on May 20 in Faculty House. Wyatt is the first Columbia student in the University's NROTC program to be commissioned since it was reinstated in May 2011, when President Lee C. Bollinger and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus signed an agreement aboard the USS Iwo Jima declaring their intention to reinstate the program.

“In many ways, Abigale is the ideal GS student,” says Curtis Rodgers, vice dean of the School of General Studies. “Her experience in the Navy and time away from school allowed her to find her academic and intellectual paths. She is a both a scholar and a leader.”

After graduating from high school in the small town of Antrim, N.H. in 2005, Wyatt spent a year and a half at the University of Massachusetts. For the next couple of years she moved around the country doing odd jobs–working at a zoo, teaching canoeing and twisting balloons into animal shapes at a mall. She was 21 and working for a tour company in Boston when she decided to join the Navy in 2008.

“I was pretty poor and moving around a lot,” Wyatt recalls. “I was looking for something that would provide some stability, a bed, food, health insurance, but also an adventure.”

After basic training in Chicago, the Navy sent her to language school in Monterey, Calif., to learn Arabic. She became an Arabic translator, posted to a National Security Agency facility in Augusta, Ga.

“I'm totally prepared to do whatever the Navy wants me to do.”

She got to use her Arabic last summer when she went to Jordan with Columbia’s SEE-U program, Summer Ecosystem Experiences for Undergraduates, doing research about ecological and sustainability issues and earning science credits. She traveled around the country and snorkeled in the Red Sea for fieldwork, identifying and counting giant clams for a report. The trip “was one of the highlights of my education,” she says.

Wyatt says she also appreciated the Core Curriculum's classes in art, music and the humanities, areas she hadn't been exposed to when she was younger. “I’ve read Plato and Aristotle, I’ve listened to Mozart. I feel like I’m a more well-rounded person,” she says. “I feel really lucky that I went to a school that offered those classes.”

But just being on campus is one of her favorite things. “I’ve met so many intelligent people with so many different goals and so many different opinions,” she says. “It’s a unique environment and I’m going to miss it.”

Wyatt will have an eight-year commitment to the Navy after she finishes pilot training, and she expects to go to graduate school, which the Navy encourages. She knows that as a pilot, she may be sent into combat. “I’m totally prepared to do whatever the Navy wants me to do,” she says.

—Story by Georgette Jasen
—Video by Columbia News Video Team

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