World Talent, Texas Tradition
Class of 2008 graduates discover new paths to changing the world
May 12, 2008
The 125th spring commencement will be celebrated May 17 by about 7,400 graduating students, their families and friends, and members of the university community.
“For 125 years, UT has represented this state’s greatest aspirations and noblest dreams,” says William Powers Jr., president of The University of Texas at Austin. “The university has inspired generations of outstanding students to pursue their ambitions and to make valuable contributions to their communities and to our state, our nation and beyond. Here at UT, students and faculty from Texas and 49 other states and from more than 100 countries constitute a world of talent.”
The following stories profile just a few of the special students who represent “world talent, Texas tradition.”
Rhodes Scholar explores mysteries of space and faith
Sarah Miller didn’t find out she was going to be a Rhodes Scholar in the mail or on the phone. She was standing shoulder to shoulder with the 20 or so other finalists in the Texas/Louisiana region, many of whom she’d gotten to know and like over the course of an intense weekend of interviews.
“It was very reality-show style,” says Miller, an astronomy and physics major from Dallas. “We were actually lined up in a jury box, and they let us know right there. We had just spent a long weekend together bonding, so it was actually kind of a bittersweet moment in that respect.”
Miller, along with 31 other Rhodes Scholars from across America, will head to Oxford University in Great Britain in the fall to study and live for two to three years. The value of the award, which depends on the students’ academic interests and requirements, and includes stipends for travel, averages about $45,000 per year.
Oxford is familiar territory for Miller. She’s gone to a theology summer program there for the last four years, and looks forward to returning to a place she already loves. But the real prize, she says, is the chance to continue her study of astronomy.
“It’s the scientific study of everything in the universe,” she says. “It’s all the big questions that philosophy and religion are also trying to answer, but it’s approaching them through science. How did we get here? How old is the universe? How did it evolve? Are we the only life in the universe? I just think it’s the most exciting thing happening in academics.”
At Oxford, Miller plans to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics. In particular, she’s going to do observational extra-galactic cosmology (looking at galaxies beyond the Milky Way). It’s the same field in which she’s done research as an undergraduate at The University of Texas at Austin, working with astronomy Professor Shardha Jogee, and in which she’s already co-authored published papers.
“I like theory,” says Miller, “and you’re never without it. But I find I’m liking much more the challenge of actually exploring and discovering things. I like going to telescopes, and being up all night, and looking at the galaxies, and figuring out what’s out there.”
For Miller, astrophysics is also a nice complement to the mysteries of her faith–a way to approach the universe that allows for definite, concrete answers to some, but not the most important, questions about life, the universe and everything.
“Why is there something rather than nothing?” she asks. “For me, personally, the answer is God. But I think it’s legitimate for people to not have that answer. It’s something that comes from your heart and your gut. It’s not a scientifically reproducible thing. Me being right doesn’t mean you being wrong, whereas in science that would be the case. I don’t want to mix the two methods of understanding the universe, because I think people really get nowhere when they do that.”
Eventually, Miller would like to return to the United States as an astronomy professor, but she’s not in a hurry to get back here.
“If I do a post-doctoral fellowship in Germany or spend some time in France after I finish at Oxford,” she says, “I wouldn’t mind that.”
By Daniel Oppenheimer
College of Natural Sciences
Student finds calling in studio art after accident
“Having a real refrigerator? Like, a full-sized refrigerator? It’s gonna be HUUUGE! It’s gonna change everything for me,” says studio art senior Wes Holloway.
After years of having to use a dorm-sized refrigerator, “I can have wine and beer now…if I want to,” he says smiling, wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon of a smiling vitamin and grinning cupcake holding hands. He’s shifting around in his chair at the Texas Expresso, hair rumpled as only an art student can fashion.
“No, but seriously,” he says, “it really is gonna change everything for me.”
Standard-size refrigerator ownership is just the beginning of what graduation this May from The University of Texas at Austin will mean to Holloway. This spring is the start of a long series of old but new experiences for Holloway. He expects to face a lot of the same challenges most graduates face, making the transition from living in “the UT bubble” as he puts it, into the world to find a job that will pay him for his art. But he also has some other major, life-transforming decisions to consider, like going from a manual to automatic wheelchair, using a keypad on his new house instead of a traditional lock and driving for the first time in six years.
Holloway and his older brother Travis, also a University of Texas at Austin graduate, grew up in Katy, Texas, just outside Houston. Both excelled in athletics and art, and their parents supported their endeavors. Holloway pursued drafting and swimming, but despite his natural talent in art, he enrolled as a natural science major. He continued to draw, sketch and doodle, but seriously pursuing art as a study and as a career didn’t look like a possibility.
That all changed after an accident at a party his freshman year, in spring 2003, left Holloway paralyzed from the chest down.
After several weeks at Brackenridge Hospital, Holloway returned home to Katy to recover. While in physical therapy, it came up that he knew how to draw well and had won awards. His therapists wanted to see some of his work. Holloway asked one of his therapists for a sheet of paper and a pencil and went off into a room by himself to draw, to see if he could still create art in his own style as he did before the accident. Holloway is unable to move his hands, but he figured out he could thread a pencil or paintbrush through his hand. Not only could he still draw, but he found out he could draw in his own style. The first thing he drew was a portrait of his brother, Travis.
Despite having to learn and practice new skills to adapt to his situation, Holloway quickly grew restless in Katy and told his parents he was returning to the university as soon as possible. They were not so sure.
After three months in the hospital and six months in rehab, Holloway came back to the university in fall 2004 and decided to pursue art as his major. He started off in Visual Arts Studies with the intent to teach, but still wasn’t completely happy there. So he made the move to studio art.
“When I told my professor [Sarah Canright] about what I had done, her response was ‘Oh, good! You’re finally where you’re supposed to be.’ And when I took Troy Brauntuch’s class I told him ‘this is all new to me, but I’m willing to try if you are’ and his response was, ‘Well…yes, of course.’”
The matter-of-fact responses from his new professors were a much-needed antidote to the dramatic, sweeping changes from the year past.
Holloway’s hands are unable to move, but they can still command paintbrushes and pencils with astonishing precision and skill, and create amazing works of art on canvas and paper.
His accident left him unable to use his hands, but he still has some use of his wrists and shoulders. Paintbrushes and pencils lie in neat rows on a table next to his canvases. He doesn’t ‘pinch’ them to pick them up so much as he threads or presses them through the spaces between his fingers. His details, his lines, are so fine, they look like they were created with a toothpick. A very small pencil drawing of his in the studio has a bear on a bike, and no detail has been spared. Every perfectly formed, individual tiny claw can be counted.
Holloway’s large-scale oil painting portraiture could be called realism, they so closely resemble photos he takes of his friends, food or objects and situations he finds “gross…but still beautiful.”
Indeed, Holloway’s studio space is surrounded by huge canvases with gaping mouths eating ice cream, bubble gum and cookies. There’s even a still-life with a sopping, greasy cheeseburger. Yet, through Holloway’s eyes, sensibilities and hands, these objects and subjects are beautiful.
Holloway’s determination, diligent practice (he spends about 30 hours a week in the advanced painting studio) and success encouraged his parents to support his choice to pursue a career in art. Because he works on such a large scale, he had to find a way to access his entire canvas. Using a peg board to mount his works required asking people to raise and lower his works for him, so his father made a pulley system using large window blinds that hold his canvases, allowing Holloway to raise and lower the canvases on his own so he can work at his own prolific pace.
Holloway’s work was recently exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute and Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and is now part of a touring exhibition titled “Driven.” For Holloway, there could be no more suitable title.
By Leslie Lyon
College of Fine Arts
From executive suite to nursing, student still wants to make a difference
The company mantra when Jim O’Neill joined Apple Computer was “the journey is the reward.”
It’s much the same for him now even though he is far from the hills of Silicon Valley where he was part of the technology hub as Apple’s vice president for worldwide logistics. At age 50, O’Neill decided to change careers, but still wanted to have personal contact with people.
This is his plan when he graduates in May from the School of Nursing.
“I’m not comfortable with two words–career and retirement,” said O’Neill. “I’m a type A personality and just can’t sit still.”
He admits this will be the first time he has not had a six-figure income, but “if I wanted to chase the dollars, I’d go back to what I was doing.”
O’Neill will graduate with a master’s degree in nursing as a clinical nurse specialist. While in school, he worked at the Heart Hospital of Austin. He is now interning with a local cardiologist who makes house calls and will continue full-time after graduation.
“I truly enjoy working with people, both in terms of individual patient interaction and as a member of a medical team,” he said.
After receiving a business degree from Vanderbilt University in 1976, O’Neill got a master’s degree in finance from the Duke University Fuqua School of Business. At Apple, he managed customer support, order management, warehousing, logistics and transportation operations in Ireland, the Netherlands, Tokyo, Singapore, Toronto, Miami, Chicago, Sacramento and Austin. He also opened the company’s U.S. Customer Support Center in Austin.
In addition to being a vice president at Apple Computer, he was chief operating officer at HumanCode where his customers included Disney, Mattel, Dell and Motorola, and was director of the American Cancer Society’s Quitline.
“I have been fortunate,” O’Neill said. “I have been vice president of a Fortune 500 company, worked for a non-profit and for a couple of local venture capital-funded startups. But, as I reflect on my past experiences, the pursuits that have been the most meaningful for me personally are those which put me in direct contact with people.”
O’Neill believes he can find the same intellectual stimulation with the complex medical field as he found with technology. He entered the School of Nursing Alternate Entry Master of Science Program, which provides a pathway for a student with a non-nursing baccalaureate degree to become a registered nurse and then obtain a master’s degree.
“The program allows individuals with a diversity of backgrounds an entry into a very rewarding field,” O’Neill said. “And beyond the obvious gratification of delivering relief to someone in need, I also feel like there is a higher sense of calling with nursing.
“The current shortage of health-care professionals and the decreasing affordability of medical insurance, present a very critical social need within the community. There is a compelling societal need, just as I believe there was with the advent of personal computing technology.”
O’Neill first became attracted to the field of medicine and health after an experience on a sailing trip with his wife. He witnessed someone having a stroke and took notice of the prolonged time before the individual received care. Wanting to become trained in first aid, O’Neill enrolled in an emergency medical training course and then paramedic school. He still is a volunteer emergency medical services (EMS) paramedic at university football games.
“As much as I enjoyed the EMS experience, the occasional long pauses between calls are difficult to endure,” he said. “I need to be active and busy. The constant flow and immediacy of the emergency room and triage were more to my liking.”
O’Neill knows he is older than most of his fellow nursing students, but he’s used to that.
“At 34 years old, I was older at Apple, too,” he said. “I’m used to being the grizzled senior, so that is no problem.”
“It has always been important for me that there be a ‘for the sake of what’ associated with any opportunity that I pursued,” O’Neill said. “In nursing, I have felt again that ‘for the sake of what.’”
By Nancy Neff
School of Nursing
Engineering student has new outlook on life after overcoming tragedy
Greg Power has no recollection of the moment that changed his life.
It was a late night in August 2007. Power, a mechanical engineering student who had scarcely returned from studying abroad in France, was the designated driver and had just dropped off a friend when he started to head home. Traveling near campus on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Power was making a lane change so that he could get into position to enter Interstate 35 North. That’s the last thing he remembers about that night–the night a drunk driver smashed into his Toyota Camry, caving in the driver’s side where Power was left trapped. By the gruesome state of the wreckage, it’s hard to fathom how anyone could have survived the impact. But Power, 21, did. And he didn’t stop there.
Power suffered brain trauma that resulted in micro-bleeding, a broken pelvic bone and a gash on the left side of his forehead. When he was in the intensive care unit, “the initial thought was that I was going to have permanent brain damage,” Power says. He didn’t, and a month later came back to the university–against the advice of his doctors–to complete his senior year. He will graduate in May with honors from the Cockrell School of Engineering.
The road to commencement was one of perseverance on Power’s part and support from university staff and faculty.
Though Power escaped permanent brain damage, his long- and short-term memory was affected. He also had trouble identifying words to describe things, so he worked with a speech therapist last fall. The Houston resident credited Tricia Gore, assistant dean of student affairs in the Cockrell School, and Janet Ellzey, a mechanical engineering professor, for their emotional support and assistance guiding him through the university’s resources such as Services for Students with Disabilities, which secured more time for him to take exams due to his memory challenge.
“It’s good to know when something like this happens, you’re not abandoned,” he says. “You have people looking out for you. You couldn’t ask for more.”
When Power returned in the fall, he continued working part-time in the Engineering Academic Affairs Office doing clerical work, but he took a reduced course load. He kept insisting he could take more–an idea, in retrospect, he admits was too ambitious.
“Everything was going so good for me (before the accident),” he recalls. “I just wanted to get back to where I left off.”
By the spring 2008 semester, life was practically back to normal. He took 16 hours of classes and no longer needed the help of the speech therapist or the additional time to take exams. A follow-up Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan of his brain in December showed the micro-bleeding had ceased.
“He’s just a walking miracle,” Gore says. “He’s just a very determined and intelligent individual.”
Power, who was president of the Texas ice hockey club before the accident, and those close to him agree his personality has changed. He participates more in class and he’s more outgoing and outspoken about drinking and driving.
“I think most people take the stance that you can have a few drinks or beers and it’s OK,” he says. “For me, it’s an absolute view: if you drink one drink, you’re not fit to drive. I let my friends know, and they respect my wishes.”
With this serendipitous second chance at life, Power ascribes to a belief in enjoying each day to its fullest. And that includes playing hockey again once doctors give him the green light.
“I know I’m lucky. I used to be too scared or too shy,” says Power, who will work for ExxonMobil in Houston. “There’s no time for that anymore.”
By Daniel J. Vargas
Cockrell School of Engineering
Son of migrant workers and single father earns law degree
Agapito Sustaita vividly remembers how most of his days began as a child of migrant workers: Waking up in the dark, pre-dawn hours and driving in a van with his parents to one of the many farms surrounding Fresno, Calif., and waiting for daylight to break before picking grapes, over and over again.
“It was always very cool before the sun came up, but quickly after sunrise it got scorching hot,” said Sustaita, a graduating law student whose parents travelled from their native Mexico to Texas and California in search of work in cotton and citrus fields. “The damp dirt would then get dry and dusty and it would get into every part of your body.”
A photograph of Sustaita taken in the early ’70s shows him standing in a vast field of dirt and grapevines. He is an infant with shiny brown hair and big eyes, wearing a diaper and cowboy boots covered in dust. Behind him is his mother. On the ground are sheets of paper where grapes would morph into raisins.
“I don’t remember the first time out (in the fields), I simply remember a gradual increase in the amount of work I could do,” said Sustaita, who picked grapes every summer until he was 15 years old.
Sustaita, now 36, said his experience working hard labor on the farms shaped his choices in life and fueled a desire to find a way to work with the immigrant community during and after law school. It also gave him the dogged determination to pursue an education and leave the insular world where he grew up.
“One good thing about growing up the way I did–hard work is drilled into you. I know that I have to work to accomplish things,” said Sustaita, who said he was a senior in high school when he realized he wanted to find a good job away from the farms of Fresno.
Despite growing up in an environment where higher education was rarely an option, Sustaita researched jobs that paid well, and applied to colleges with engineering programs. He earned an undergraduate degree in computer science from the University of California-Santa Barbara and a master’s degree, also in computer science, from Texas A&M University.
He also finished two years of a Ph.D. program at The University of Texas at Austin before joining Applied Research Laboratories as a research engineer and later Intel Corp. as a senior software engineer.
Sustaita was the first and only person in his family to graduate from college. He has also coped with more loss and turmoil in his youth than most people experience in a lifetime.
His mother died when Sustaita was four, prompting his father to send him and six siblings to live with various relatives. Later, Sustaita rejoined his father and new stepmother, continuing to pick grapes when he was not in school. Not long after, Sustaita’s father served several short prison stints. A few years later, his stepmother was arrested on a drug-related conspiracy charge and served 13 years in federal prison before being deported to Mexico.
One of the darkest times for Sustaita, however, occurred in October 2003 when his young wife died of cancer two months after giving birth to their daughter, Lucero, and leaving him to raise her alone.
“Those first few months,” he said. “I didn’t think about anything. But having Lucero was the biggest help in terms of keeping me moving forward. She was a focus.”
After his wife’s death, Sustaita decided to take his career in a new direction by going to law school. He liked the idea of merging his background in computer science with law.
“I still like engineering and with patent law you can use your engineering brain,” said Sustaita, who will join Campbell Stephenson, an Austin law firm specializing in intellectual property in September.
Sustaita also chose to go to law school because of the option it would provide to do public service work, particularly in the area of immigration law.
“It is important to me,” he said. “After serving her sentence, my mom (Sustaita’s stepmother) was deported because she never became a citizen and that just seemed wrong. Her whole life was here, her kids were here, her husband was here and she got kicked out anyway.”
Last year while enrolled in the law school’s immigration clinic, Sustaita represented the clinic’s first client at the Texas’ Hutto Detention Center–a pregnant mother from Central America who received no prenatal care.
Sustaita said he found immigration law to be interesting and important but heartbreaking because the outcomes for his clients, many of whom had suffered horrible injustices, were often unfavorable. They rarely received asylum in the United States.
Law professors observed that Sustaita took many hard, extremely scholarly courses in law school when it would have been understandable to take a lighter schedule because he was raising a baby.
“Agapito worked very hard, and always had great things to add to class. I enjoyed having him in the courses, because he is so thoughtful, and he doesn’t take anything for granted,” said Professor Emily Kadens, a law professor who hired Sustaita to be a research assistant.
When Sustaita participates in this month’s commencement ceremony, his daughter, now almost five, will be in the audience. She will be with his fiancée, a university graduate student, and their 11-month-old daughter, Rosalía, named for Sustaita’s grandmother and 32-year-old sister, who died in a car accident more than a year ago at Christmas.
Lucero, his new daughter and fiancée are an important part of how his life has taken a new direction, Sustaita said.
“I am completely appreciative of where I am just because I know the other side,” he said, explaining he’s not just referring to growing up in poverty. “The other side is not knowing anything about the world, like how college works or how the world at large works. I wouldn’t go on vacations with my parents and they wouldn’t talk about news or current events and they wouldn’t vote. My world was so small.”
Sustaita is confident that his daughters’ childhoods will be much different from what he experienced.
“They’re never going to work in grape fields,” he said. “They are never going to use food stamps and be on welfare. And they’re never going to think that college is not an option.”
By Laura Castro
School of Law
Plan II student combats sex trafficking in Southeast Asia
While interning for International Justice Mission, a human rights organization in Washington, D.C., Christine Nguyen happened to see Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice walking through the corridors of the Capitol building.
Instead of letting the Secretary of State pass her by, the Plan II/government/business honors/management student introduced herself and asked Rice what she was doing to end human rights violations in India and Asia.
“Secretary Rice assured me she was working with government leaders to support reforms,” Nguyen says. “There wasn’t time for her to offer many specifics, but I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask a few key questions.”
Nguyen smiles as she recalls the meeting, but her seemingly demure exterior can’t hide a fierce passion that has fueled her human rights advocacy work during her years at The University of Texas at Austin.
At the age of 19, Nguyen’s experience volunteering at an orphanage for sex-trafficking victims in Vietnam inspired her to found the Southeast Asian Children’s Coalition, an international non-profit organization that combats poverty and exploitation. For the past four years, the college student has been the coalition’s executive director.
“My parents told me my whole life that I’m lucky, but I didn’t know what that truly meant until I met Tau, a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl who escaped from the brothel where she was imprisoned as a sex slave,” Nguyen says.
Human trafficking, the recruitment of people–often children–for the purpose of exploitation, including prostitution, is a growing problem internationally, Nguyen explains.
The number of people being “trafficked” ranges from 500,000 to two million per year. It is a $5 to $9 billion-a-year industry, according to estimates by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Nguyen returns to Vietnam each year and she has raised more than $60,000 for the Southeast Asian Children’s Coalition through grants and corporate contributions.
“Our work is not just about rescuing these girls from the brothels,” she says. “We take a three-pronged approach to the problem that includes protection, prevention and prosecution. The biggest challenge is reintegrating the girls back into society through education and job training.”
Under Nguyen’s leadership, the coalition has awarded 65 scholarships for students at Van Thang Primary School in Nha Trang City, raised funds for construction of a library at Nha Trang Orphanage, delivered medical supplies to Binh Hoang AIDS orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City and created a counseling program for sex trafficking survivors at the Little Rose Shelter, also in Ho Chi Minh City.
Nguyen’s friend Tau, now 16-years-old, is a mentor in the program.
“When I see the difference we’ve made in the lives of girls like Tau, I know the work we’re doing really can make a huge impact,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen’s activism in Asia served as the inspiration for her honors thesis on human trafficking, and caught the attention of editors at Glamour, who selected Nguyen for the magazine’s profile of the “Top Ten College Women of 2006.”
Nguyen has been awarded the Rubenstein Fellowship to attend the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School this fall. However, those plans won’t prevent her from returning to Vietnam next month.
“My education at UT taught me that we live in an interconnected world,” Nguyen says. “My goal is to use that knowledge to move seamlessly between the government, non-profit and business sectors to find real, workable solutions to the human rights issues facing the world today.”
By Jennifer McAndrew
College of Liberal Arts
Business student earns degree after three decades
Maria Pineda is graduating 30 years after she first set foot in a University of Texas at Austin classroom.
She and her husband came to the university, sight unseen, in 1978, after earning associate’s degrees from a Laredo junior college. They were both majoring in business and were eager to start classes.
Plans soon changed, however, when Pineda became pregnant and withdrew from classes before completing her first semester. She started working full-time at a bank, becoming an expert in international transactions and accounts. But despite her talents, she found it difficult to advance.
“I kept training these kids with degrees in music, geology–just about everything,” Pineda recalls. “But then they would get a promotion instead of me, because I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree.”
In 1992, seeking to reconnect with higher education, Pineda joined the university as an employee, and worked her way up to a senior administrative associate in the Department of Germanic Studies, where she continues to work today. She was thrilled to return to campus and be part of the university’s mission.
“I feel like my job is to take care of the behind-the-scenes work, so that our stars–the faculty and students–can really shine,” Pineda says. “I’m very proud of what I do.”
Professor John Hoberman, chairman of Germanic Studies, says Pineda’s work ethic is inspiring and indispensable to the department.
“The completion of her bachelor’s degree during her long period of employment at UT is one more example of Ms. Pineda’s commitment to making the most out of every opportunity life gives her,” Hoberman says.
Pineda’s philosophy, as a mother and a staff member, was to tend to the needs of others before thinking of herself, and she did so happily. But in 2000, when the university started offering staff members free tuition for one course per semester, Pineda decided to do something for herself. It was the opportunity she had been waiting for, though it wouldn’t be easy.
She enrolled in one class per semester–but occasionally a busy period at work meant she had to drop the class or take a night class instead. Pineda was also intimidated by the kids half her age who seemed to have all the answers, or at least remembered their high-school algebra, a subject she had not studied in years. Sometimes juggling work, family and school became too much. Pineda was hospitalized for exhaustion two or three times.
But she persevered, hired tutors, worked with her advisers and fed off the energy of her classmates. Pineda relished the chance to learn from renowned faculty and guest speakers. She proudly recalls interviewing entrepreneur and Bookstop founder Gary Hoover for a class project.
“I thought ‘How could a person like me meet someone like him?’” Pineda says. “But going to school here gave me that chance.”
Now, at the age of 50, after seeing two of her three her children graduate from the university and go on to graduate school, after the birth of her first grandchild and after many long, homework-filled nights and weekends, Pineda is graduating with a degree in management.
She won’t be heading to Wall Street anytime soon, though. For now, Pineda looks forward to working in her backyard, playing the accordion and volunteering with the Hispanic Faculty/Staff Association–hobbies that have taken a backseat over the years to final exams and group projects.
“I’ve worked so hard that even if I didn’t earn a degree, I’d feel good about myself,” Pineda says. “But this degree to me is freedom. I know I could apply for all those jobs out there that require a degree, that weren’t even a possibility before.”
By Tracy Mueller
McCombs School of Business
Path to graduation for student included Iraq tour of duty
On her way to becoming a pharmacist and graduating from The University of Texas at Austin, Prudence Hofmann experienced a slight interruption–a 545-day tour of duty in Iraq.
She had been a student in the College of Pharmacy for only one year when her reserve unit was called up. In Iraq, she was a “human intelligence collector” for army intelligence–leading a team in detainee screenings, interrogations and source operations.
“I was…well…upset and overwhelmed when I found out I had to report to duty,” Hofmann said. “But soon I realized that it was part of the commitment I made to the military and that it would be a once in a lifetime experience.”
Her life became one of Black Hawk helicopters, Humvees, military gear, weapons and maneuvers at a small forward operating base in the middle of the desert between Iskandariah and Amariyah. Because Hofmann’s job required her to build a network of sources and obtain information, she would spend several days a week “outside the wire.”
“It was difficult to distinguish what information was accurate, whom we could trust and who were the ‘bad guys,’” she said. “We were located in a tough area where most of the people were Sunni and very resistant in 2005 to U.S. presence.”
Her one day off a week was spent playing cards, watching movies, playing volleyball and getting to know the locals, many of whom would bring the soldiers buckets of dates.
“Everyone always asks how hot is Iraq,” Hofmann said. “Let’s just say that summer in Iraq is hot (think 127 degrees), summer in Iraq in full ‘battle rattle’ is hotter (think 140 degrees) and summer in Iraq inside a metal airplane with several other individuals dressed in full ‘battle rattle’ is indescribable.
“I think that these experiences have helped shape me into a well-rounded and mature person who can handle almost any situation,” she said. “I am thankful for the training I received in the military and think it has been absolutely invaluable in my pursuit to becoming a pharmacist.”
Iraq and time spent in Kuwait, Guatemala, Peru, Arizona and California is quite different from Bagely, Minnesota–the town of 1,250 where Hofmann grew up. Her grandmother and mother were nurses, both working at the same community hospital in Bagely.
“As a child, I would listen to my mother’s stories after a day’s work at the hospital,” said Hofmann. “She was usually tired, but her heart was filled with happiness–not because she had helped save someone, but because she had been there to support someone through difficult times.
“Working in the medical field is more than treating patients. It is about understanding the needs of individuals and their families. My mother would tell me that the patient is not the only one who suffers, but that the family suffers and endures as well.”
Hofmann likes pharmacy because it is a person-oriented field.
“One is able to work directly with people by providing advice and services that help achieve good health,” she said. “At the end of the day pharmacists are able to go home knowing that they helped someone.”
Having limited financial support to attend college, Hofmann joined the military in her last year of high school to take advantage of the army college fund. While she enjoyed her time in military intelligence, she quickly discovered it wasn’t something she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
Hofmann will do a pharmacy practice residency at the Audie L. Murphy Veterans Administration Hospital in San Antonio next year.
“It will be an excellent opportunity to get direct patient care experience in both the inpatient and outpatient setting in a population that I hold dear to my heart,” she said.
By Nancy Neff
College of Pharmacy
Photos: Marsha Miller
Photo of Sarah Miller: Brett Buchanan