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Bootstrapper graduate

High school dropout walks a nontraditional path to commencement

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: May 12, 2012
Keith Widaman

May 2012 Mizzou graduate Keith Widaman is a Marine Corps veteran whose path to Columbia took detours around the world. The outgoing president of the Mizzou Student Veterans Association, Widaman has worked to garner support for veterans on campus.

Keith Widaman was 25 when he enrolled full time at Mizzou after eight years of military service and four deployments to trouble spots around the world.

The bachelor’s degree he receives this spring came with a resilience few students develop.

Widaman’s unusual route to higher education began when he dropped out of high school at age 16 with a 10th grade education and no family help. Living on his own, he supported himself with a night-shift job at a factory in Montgomery City, Mo., until a company layoff forced him to take construction jobs. 

Widaman enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on a waiver in 2001. He was just 17, and a savvy staff sergeant dropped him off at a community college to work toward a GED.

The young Marine earned his GED in 2002 and began some college courses, fitting them in during lunch hour while working 10 hours a day on active duty.  

Semper Fi  

It’s fair to say that Widaman grew up in the military.

After discovering his aptitude for learning languages, the Marine Corps sent him to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., to study modern standard Arabic and Middle Eastern culture, which he would soon put to use.

Widaman continued classes there and at the community college between his international deployments: to Kuwait for build-up operations preceding the invasion of Iraq; to Haiti on a peace-keeping mission during that country’s coup d'état; to a ship off the coast of Somalia to contain piracy; to Bangladesh for disaster relief; and to Iraq to train police. 

“I learned a lot about Mideast culture. Over the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of need for more understanding. That cultural gap needs to be bridged. As a Marine who’s traveled that part of the world, I can give back. That’s my goal,” he says.

Widaman has been accepted to graduate school in advanced study of Arabic and Middle Eastern culture at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. 

Solid to the core

The decision to attend Mizzou was major for Widaman, who was used to the community college at Camp Lejeune, N.C. “It’s a satellite campus on base, nothing like a complicated university, and large institutions can be confusing,” he says.

After transferring to Mizzou on the GI Bill in summer 2009, Widaman was a 25-year-old sophomore learning to navigate the university with help from fellow veterans. He found an advocate in Carol Fleisher, now director of the MU Veterans Center, which serves 450 veterans and 150 dependents of active duty and disabled veterans.

Getting a “solid C” in his first class — American government — was a rude awakening.

“I realized this was not community college, and I had to step my game up,” he says.

Widaman’s perseverance brought him the success he had found in the military. He changed his major from psychology to international studies as part of his plan to continue studying Arabic. He studied abroad in Jordan on a Gilman Scholarship through the Council for International Educational Exchange. He served as a volunteer legislative intern in the Missouri House of Representatives. And he was inducted into the SALUTE National Honor Society for veterans.

The few and the proud  

As outgoing president of the Mizzou Student Veterans Association, Widaman has raised awareness of veterans on campus.

Widaman knew he was high functioning when he came to MU as a Marine staff sergeant, yet he found it hard to maintain his grades. He figured other veterans were having similar trouble.

So Widaman started an initiative that he hopes will gain momentum. He formed a 501 C3 for the development of a veterans house, similar to Greek residences, where former military members could live together and help each other transition into student and civilian life. A board has been appointed and is working on bylaws.

“This house would give Mizzou a leg up in bringing in veterans on the GI Bill. It’s already a veteran-friendly campus here,” Widaman says.

The Missouri Department of Higher Education reports a significant increase in the number of military veterans enrolling in colleges and universities. Fleisher expects the number of veterans attending Mizzou to rise quickly with the diminishing U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

She’s appreciative of the work Widaman started: “Keith is a complex man who has accomplished much. He has been a real asset to MU. Although I am happy that he is graduating, he will be sorely missed for his leadership.”

Incoming president of the association is Trista Corbin, an Army veteran who served as a medic in Iraq. She’s the first female president of the group, and Widaman says she’s up to the task.

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Last updated: June 6, 2013