National Guard sergeant completes Nebraska degree from afar

National Guard sergeant completes Nebraska degree from afar

Melissa Rahorst
Capt. Doug Carlson | Nebraska National Guard
Gov. Pete Ricketts (left) and Adj. Gen. Daryl Bohac present Sgt. Melissa Rahorst a certified copy of her University of Nebraska degree

Melissa Rahorst finished her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice this December, but she was missing from among the nearly 1,500 people who walked across the stage Dec. 16 at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln to collect their University of Nebraska–Lincoln diplomas.

That’s because Rahorst is a military police officer serving in the Nebraska National Guard. Though she can’t say where, for the past seven months the 21-year-old sergeant has been stationed at a base outside the continental U.S., nearly 2,000 miles from Lincoln. The university delivered her degree to her parents, Ron and Kathy Rahorst of Cortland, Nebraska.

On Dec. 21, however, Rahorst's unit received a surprise holiday visit from Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Nebraska Adj. Gen.Daryl Bohac. The two delivered a package from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln: a certified copy of Rahorst’s degree; red, white and blue honor cords used to designate the graduation robes of Nebraska’s military graduates, and a congratulatory letter from Chancellor Ronnie Green.

“We are so proud of you and what you have achieved,” Green wrote. “We hope in some small way we brought the ceremony to you.”

Rahorst surprised her family when, as a 17-year-old senior at Norris Central High School, she decided to join the National Guard. No one in her immediate family has served in the military – her father is a retired electrical engineering technician and her mother is a United Church of Christ pastor. She enlisted at the earliest age allowed.

“I actually joined the National Guard on a whim,” she said in a Dec. 19 telephone interview. “A recruiter came to our school and I thought, ‘that’s not a bad idea.’"

She has never regretted the decision, which put her on a fast track to completing her degree in just 3½ years. Since she expected to be deployed, she made it a habit to take 15 to 18 credit hours each semester, as well as three classes each summer. During her third year, she started taking half of her course load online, to become accustomed to long-distance study. This semester, all of her school work was conducted online from her new location.

“You have to be good with the syllabus — print it out and follow it pretty strictly,” she said. “As long as I stayed on myself to do the work, it wasn’t too difficult.”

Rahorst said she is not the only person in her unit who is also a student. A couple of her colleagues are pursuing doctorate degrees, another graduated last spring during pre-mobilization and still another plans to complete a degree in about two years.

“We have a lot of studious people trying to get their degrees done,” she said.

Nebraska is a highly ranked school for veterans and members of the military. For the past two years, the Military Times has included it among its top 30 colleges for current and former military members and their families.

Rahorst, who graduated from Norris in 2014, was a talented saxophonist in high school who qualified for the U.S. Army All-American Marching Band that year. She started out at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln as a saxophone performance major and dabbled briefly with opera performance before setting on a criminal justice major. Her first job in the military was a military police officer. She hasn’t yet decided between a full-time military career or a civilian career as a police officer.

She said she loves military life and would recommend the National Guard to other students.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to get some real-world experience and also to pursue your degree,” she said. “I, for sure, would recommend the military as a good career option.”