Wounded veteran earning computer science degree at SRU
Bradon Walters, 37-year-old wounded veteran and father of two, is earning his bachelor’s degree in computer science at Slippery Rock University.
May 1, 2023
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Bradon Walters doesn't need to wear a cap and gown to commemorate what he accomplished as a student at Slippery Rock University. Instead, there's a photo on his family's refrigerator of Walters in a maternity ward, holding his two-day-old son on his arm while attending an online Elementary Statistics class on his laptop. Yet even that moment doesn't quite capture Walters' entire journey. The 37-year-old is a wounded Army veteran whose first semester at SRU occurred at the onset of a global pandemic. He then became a father for the second time, and now, four years after enrolling at SRU, he's graduating with a bachelor's degree in computer science.
"It's definitely had its challenges," said Walters, a Butler resident and Clarion County native. "But you look back and you're like, 'Wow, I did what I had to do to get this done.' It may not look pretty, but I had to do this."
The challenges Walters referred to ranged from having a toddler tugging on his arm while trying to complete academic work, to being a man in his mid-30s sitting in the front row of a college class because he suffered hearing damage during his time in the Army.
"One of the biggest challenges was feeling out of place because there's such an age difference," Walters said. "Everyone that I've had class with has been awesome, but it can be awkward. I'm not going to become friends with peers who are 10 or 12 years younger than me...I'm married and I have children."
Walters attended an online
class from the maternity ward
days after his son, Forrest,
was born in 2021.
Walters said he's had support from SRU's on-campus Veterans Center. Amber Korcok, SRU's veterans benefit coordinator in the Admissions Office, assisted with his transition, making sure his veterans benefits were applied upon enrolling.
"She was super-friendly, and everything went through and she made sure I was ready to go," Walters said. "I was sending her emails every other day just making sure everything was right and she was very helpful and knowledgeable and able to guide me through the process."
"We have many veterans on campus and so many of them have obstacles and challenges that most people don't realize," said Korcok, who assists with the more than 100 SRU students who are veterans, active military or a dependent in a military family. "It's great to see Bradon succeeding. It's well-deserved."
Walters enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from Keystone High School in 2006. He was in the Army Reserves for six years, during which he entered the manufacturing workforce, building floor joists and "floating around" to different jobs until his unit, the 377th Engineering Company in Butler, was mobilized in 2012. During a training exercise in Fort Bliss, Texas, an explosion left Walters with a perforated left eardrum. He had surgery to remove the cholesteatoma in his ear.
"All the hearing bones in my left ear were gone," Walters said. "My permanent hearing was intact, but it affected my mechanical hearing bones and (doctors) 3-D printed all the little bones and put them in my eardrum through reconstructive surgery. But the surgery only got me to a certain point. My hearing is atrocious, but I can still hear if I sit up front in class."
Walters completed his eight-year contract with the Army in 2014, the final two years on active duty. He continued working in the manufacturing industry, but after a while, a new interest emerged.
"I started to fall in love with the computerized part of (manufacturing)," Walters said. "There's computer coding and communicating with the machines so that a machine does what you need it to do. I started to dabble a little bit in programming and messing with the consoles, and then I thought, 'Maybe I should go to school for this.' And for me to get to where I want to be, I needed to have a college degree."
Shortly before he enrolled at SRU, Walters started working in the software development department for the Alliance for Nonprofit Resources in Butler.
"I already had quite a bit of knowledge before I started at the University, which helped me early," Walters said. "Gradually, the courses got more difficult and more in line with what I'm doing at ANR, and my classes helped expose me to the different languages of computer programming."
For example, he was using the C# computer programming language at ANR while also learning Java in his SRU classes. And despite having a job, albeit part-time and seasonal at ANR, he was determined to get his degree so he could obtain a higher-paying, full-time job as a software developer.
"I wish I'd done this earlier because there's a whole different set of challenges when you're when you're older," Walters said.
One of those challenges is balancing family life. Walters and his wife, Amanda, whom he married in 2020, have a two-year-old son, Forrest. Walters also has a six-year-old daughter, Lydia, from a previous marriage. He sees her at least every other weekend.
"It's not conducive (for a college student), especially for computer science, where you really have to concentrate, and you can lose sleep (when your child is getting up in the middle of the night)" Walter said. "My wife is very supportive, and we take turns putting our son to bed, but I feel like she is getting the short end of the stick, especially when she's just getting off work and I ask her to watch (our son) more."
Still, the sacrifices are worth it. And Walters hopes his story is an example for other adult learners.
"It might sound really, really cliche, but you can do anything that you put your mind to," Walters said. "If I could do it over, I would've gotten my degree when I was 20 years old, but at any point in life, you can make a change for the better."
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