Dawsen Wimer has overcome challenges uncommon to many students in this year’s graduating class. As a member of the New Jersey Army National Guard, his college experience has been a juggling act between school demands and calls to duty, including a month-long deployment in Washington, D.C., in the wake of the January 6 insurrection.
For Wimer and about 70 other Guard soldiers attending Montclair State University, the past few years have been an extraordinary time to serve, with non-stop missions making this among the busiest times in National Guard history.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, many of the military students have served in FEMA-run field hospitals and testing sites. Responding to global crises, some have been sent overseas or been activated to build housing for Afghan refugees. Wimer, among the first of the National Guard sent to secure the Capitol, slept for a few hours on the Capitol floor.
“It’s like we’re living in the pages of a history book,” says Wimer, who will earn a BA in Justice Studies.
National Guard members share stories of lives disrupted as they respond to these tumultuous events and the challenges of keeping up with their classes. The University’s Office of Veteran and Military Resources serves these students, helping them stay on track to complete their degrees. Options vary by student and mission and can include taking classes remotely while activated or making up work when they return, says Jonathan Gubitosi, the veteran’s certification, advising and engagement coordinator.
New Jersey state law mandates that every member of the New Jersey Army National Guard is authorized to attend any New Jersey public college or university tuition free for undergraduate and graduate studies.
That was among the incentives that appealed to Wimer when deciding to become a Guard soldier. A native of Missouri, he talked over his options with his grandfather, a Navy veteran, who encouraged him to join. “To be honest, I was scared. But my grandpa, he sat me down and we talked about it and how the National Guard would cover my college tuition. I would stay relatively out of debt, get experience and help finding jobs, and serve my country too.”
Edith Argueta, on track to graduate in January 2023 with a degree in Medical Humanities and a minor in Anthropology, has served on the front lines of the pandemic. Born in Guatemala, she moved to New Jersey at age 9, growing up in Trenton. Her decision to join the National Guard was a “random choice,” she says, and one her family at first did not understand. “It was the experience that I wanted, the adrenaline, the desire to do something different with myself.”
Serving as a medic, Argueta was deployed to assist at a Covid-19 testing site, a four-month stint that required her to live in a hotel to limit the risk of exposure. “We couldn’t make any contact with the outside world,” she recalls, and with the stress and hours making it difficult to keep up with all her classes, her GPA suffered. Still she is thankful for the experience. “The missions have brought a lot of people into my life, really good friends who I’ll forever cherish.”
James Olatunji recently was among the troops deployed to East Africa, where as a mechanic his job was to support the infantry in Somalia. A Computer Science major, he’s involved on campus with the Student Government Association, and says he draws on his National Guard training as a student leader.
“What the military has taught me is that you can do great things under pressure,” he says. “You just have to relax and take it a step at a time, to not rush but to try to figure out what the answer might be, taking it as you go and facing situations as they come.”