University of Texas at Dallas senior Angela Cheryl Willis joined the Navy at age 18 for one reason: She needed a way to pay for college so she could pursue her lifelong dream of a career in the arts.
Thanks to the military education benefits she earned from four years of active duty and two years in the Reserve, Willis started to work on her degree in 1987 but put schooling on hold in 1989 to start her family. Thirty years later, she has finally realized her dream by earning a bachelor’s degree in visual and performing arts from the School of Arts and Humanities.
Willis was recognized along with other military and veteran graduates during a special cord ceremony on May 6. Students who serve or have served in the U.S. military are invited to wear a special red, white and blue honor cord at commencement in recognition of their service.
“I’m so honored. Spending most of my life caring for my family, and happily so, I’ve always felt like I’m in the background. I’m not used to being catered to,” Willis said.
Since her adolescence, Willis said the arts have fed her soul — from community theater to music, photography and drawing. Though she wanted to pursue a career in arts and performance, her family couldn’t provide the financial means.
“I wanted to go to college, but there was no college fund for me. And my mother wanted me to pay rent. That wasn’t going to work,” Willis recalled.
After she saw the 1980 Goldie Hawn movie Private Benjamin, she thought, “Hey, that’s something I could do.”
Her father pleaded with her not to join the Army because he feared she’d experience combat, so Willis opted for the Navy. Boot camp was as hard as she expected, but the experience helped the 80 or so women in her unit to bond tightly.
“I’m a pretty stoic person. I was driven to get through boot camp and do whatever the commander told me to do,” Willis said. “They just tear you down to your core so they can build you up as a unit. When you graduate, you’re just in love with the others in your unit. These women became a part of my extended family.”