Veteran turned student wins the war for his future
When Justin Darnall left the Marines in 2012, he traded one war for another: the war for his future.
Story by Doug McPherson
Military life wasn’t easy – for him or his mother. While in Afghanistan, rockets rained down regularly on his base. “They would come at any time of day and multiple times a day,” says Darnell, a senior studying aerospace systems engineering technology in MSU Denver’s Individualized Degree Program. “And my mother was an emotional wreck the whole time I was deployed.”
But transitioning from war zones to the states wasn’t much easier. “I had a very hard time in public settings, especially with my mom. I was constantly running threat assessments on everyone around us and couldn’t break the anxiety.”
Even finding the right school was tough. Before landing at MSU Denver, he studied at two Denver-area colleges, but he found them expensive and not veteran friendly.
Then in the fall of 2016, he enrolled at MSU Denver and life began to look up. Veterans Affairs (VA) and therapy groups helped him get a grasp on his anxiety.
“I learned the best way to defeat anxiety was to simply give back,” Darnell says.
And it was at MSU Denver where he found the perfect place to give back: The Veterans Education Benefits office.
“It’s an impressive place. The amount of knowledge and effort, all in the name of helping every veteran to the best of their ability, is unparalleled,” he says. “And that’s the reason I decided to join their team, even though I had a lot of studies and very little time. I wanted to help my fellow veterans so that no one had to go through what I did, and so every veteran who started school at MSU Denver would ultimately earn their degree.”
Today he helps fellow vets with everything from using the GI Bill to finding shelter.
It turns out he’s good role model – in addition to earning a 4.0 GPA and serving in several extracurricular groups, the American Council on Education (ACE) named him a 2017 student of the year. This month he traveled to Washington, D.C. to accept the award that came with a $1,000 scholarship. Darnell was able to shave off a nearly a year of classes at MSU Denver due to ACE credits he earned while working as an airplane mechanic in the military.
“The credits were extremely crucial for me to be able to earn a bachelor’s degree because I wasted some of my GI Bill at the other schools and I would have run out of benefits my last semester at MSU Denver and would have had no way of paying for it myself,” he says.
Darnell says his tuition at MSU Denver is money well spent. “One of my instructors is a former NASA space shuttle flight instructor and another designed some of the world’s most impressive missiles,” he says. “So I’m learning what I’m supposed to learn but from people who’ve had some incredible life and career experiences.”
Darnell is particularly impressed with the Individualized Degree Program. “Many veterans have found that it’s the best way to use their military experience because we get to choose what’s included and we never have to say ‘why am I taking this class, it has nothing to do with my degree.’ I believe it’s going to give me the edge in the job market because I have more related classes and skills for an aerospace career.”
He’ll graduate next year and says he’ll miss many things about MSU Denver – chief among them is “being in a position to help my fellow veterans and fellow students. Knowing that I’ve helped someone with their higher education ambitions is the most satisfying part of my day.”
He adds that when he walks across the stage, the best part won’t be hearing the words summa cum laude. “It’ll be my mom saying to herself, ‘That’s my son.’ And graduating will show her that all of her sleepless nights and constant worry have paid off.”