Long before her 17th birthday, Michelle McBee had set two goals for herself — serving in the U.S. Air Force and, one day, becoming a lawyer.
She has met her first goal and will achieve the second when she graduates in May from the School of Law. Even so, McBee's thoughts are never far way from those still serving, and the needs of military veterans who are now trying to overcome a variety of obstacles as they forge new paths for themselves.
McBee understands obstacles well — having overcome more than a few just to serve her country, and then to pursue her education.
"I spent my 17th birthday in a military processing station in Georgia," says McBee with a smile. "Getting there was not easy. I'm one of 15 children and I was in foster care. State kids can't join the military until they are 18."
The solution? Getting adopted at age 16.
Law student Michelle McBee is one of 1,400 student veterans using their education benefits at UA.
"I was going to high school during the day and working nights at a Waffle House," recalls McBee, who earned her diploma in just three years. "An Air Force recruiter I met at work knew the law. He helped me navigate an adoption with a couple we both knew that would give me permission to join the military. That's where I got my interest in the law."
McBee admits enlisting was more about a secure future than service at first — having money for college and to help her younger siblings.
"I was already in basic training on 9/11, and that changed everything," says McBee. "That's when I really learned about service and commitment."
Senior Airman McBee went on to serve four years as an F-15 avionics mechanic at bases in Texas, Florida and Okinawa, Japan. During that time she married her high school sweetheart, James. They now have three children, Annabelle, 8, Elizabeth, 6, and Joseph, 5, and McBee is due to deliver their fourth child on Dec. 23.
McBee was still on active duty when she began college, and she continued her studies as a veteran. In all, she attended five schools before earning a B.A. in Christianity at Mercer University in Georgia.
"It was difficult because every time I had to move, I had to convince a new registrar's office to accept the credits I'd earned elsewhere and the financial aid offices didn't understand my military benefits."
Michelle McBee, chosen as a Tillman Military Scholar in 2010, did the 2011 Pat's Run in Tempe, Ariz., with her daughter Annabelle. After graduation, McBee plans to remain active aiding the Pat Tillman Foundation as part of its alumni group.
Her experience at The University of Akron has been much more positive, and McBee credits the Military Services Center. "The staff understands the military system and provides the support needed. I don’t have to go all over campus to different offices because it's all right there."
And thanks to the Ohio GI Promise, which allows military veterans, their spouses and dependents to attend Ohio colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates, McBee's husband has been studying design engineering at Stark State College.
McBee's hard work, first in the Air Force and now at UA, brought her a prestigious honor in 2010 by the Pat Tillman Foundation. She was chosen from a field of more than 1,500 applicants to be one of 59 members of its second class of Tillman Military Scholars.
Pat Tillman was the young man who famously walked away from a high profile career with the Arizona Cardinals in 2002 to help fight the war on terror. Following his death in 2004 while serving with the U.S. Army's 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan, the foundation was established.
Today, the Tillman Foundation carries on his legacy of service and leadership in several ways. It not only awards scholarship support to service members, veterans and their spouses as they pursue degrees, it annually provides service and leadership opportunities around the United States to the current scholars as well as alumni of the program.
McBee's own commitment to service is clear. She plans to seek a commission after earning a Juris Doctor and LLM in Intellectual Property.
"I hope to be an attorney in the Judge Advocate General Corps, either in the Air Force or Marine Corps. I want to go back in. More people need to step up and share the responsibility."
Again, her thoughts are on those currently serving, and on those who have returned home.
"Communities should be reaching out to the veterans who need assistance with jobs and housing and other basics. We need to recognize those who have given so much."