#MyPathToSeniorWalk: Veteran Takes Advantage of Second Chance to Earn Degrees

Dietrich Thurston
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Dietrich Thurston

Crouching in a bunker in Afghanistan with mortar fire from the Taliban roaring overhead, Dietrich Thurston thought about his accomplishments in life up to that point and the opportunities missed along the way – most notably an abandoned pursuit of a higher education degree after he was academically dismissed from the U of A nearly two decades before for poor grades. 

“In the bunker, I thought to myself, ‘What the heck am I doing?’” he said. “I realized in that moment that life is not a permanent thing. When it’s over, I want to look back and think that I accomplished all the goals I wanted to accomplish and realize my dreams.” 

“It was at that point I said if I get out of this, I’m going to do the best job I can in the military, and if I get the chance to go back to school, I’m going to take it,” he added. 

Thurston did get that opportunity after earning a military retirement. Not only did he return to school and earn a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the U of A, he went on to pursue a master’s degree in crop, soil and environmental science, a degree he expects to complete this summer.

His return to school continued a passion for education instilled as a child by his father, a professor at Clemson University. His father, who “came from nothing,” worked for a railroad in the “map-dot” railroad town of Kismet, Kansas, before committing to a belief that education could transform his life. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the U of A and a Ph.D. from Missouri, advanced degrees that propelled him into a career in academia. 

“When you’re raised in a family with a professor parent, you grow up understanding the value of education,” he said. “It was just a part of my life. We had National Geographics in my house to read. We would take trips, and Dad would always tell me about the science behind things. When I was in the military, it was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ Science and learning were so much of my life, and I had gotten away from it.” 

Returning to school, Thurston had learned from his mistakes during his first foray at the university – a lack of a strong support network and awareness of academic resources on campus such as tutoring and office hours, as well as a fear of approaching professors for help. 

This time, Thurston tapped into the many resources available to him – and made it a point to get to know his professors who helped him along his academic journey. 

“This time around, the classes where I struggled the most were where I made the best connections with the teachers and staff,” he said. “One class that particularly bogged me down early on was Fundamentals of Agricultural Systems Technology. The class is math-heavy, and I was severely out of practice. I remember explaining to the professor, Dr. Don Johnson, that I did not think I could keep up. He recommended that I come to two labs per week instead of one - and I did. He recommended that I visit him during office hours – and I did.” 

“I learned through our interaction that most professors are willing to provide additional help to students who demonstrate a genuine desire to learn,” he said. “This became the secret of my success here at the U of A.”

But his studies weren’t without challenges. When Thurston struggled in a class, he would walk down the sidewalk behind the Agriculture Building until he found his dad’s name on Senior Walk to remind himself of why he was here. 

“I would think of the struggles he endured,” Thurston said. “He grew up as a kid in rural Kansas with very little money, and his dad passed away when he was in college. He endured these things and yet struggled through them. It simply helped me to get through some of my challenges – and it still does.” 

In two years, Thurston had earned his bachelor’s degree and landed a job as a turf equipment mechanic for Razorbacks Athletics. During his time working for the Razorbacks, he realized that he needed more education to be able to find employment in academia studying soil science. Motivated by his dad having his name on Senior Walk twice, Thurston returned to school for his master’s degree. 

When returning as an undergraduate, Thurston made all As except for one B in soil science. Since he “learned the most in this class because it was challenging,” Thurston decided to continue his master’s degree in the same field. 

After graduation, Thurston is looking to work in a scientific research field focused on natural resource conservation or environmental restoration. While he isn’t ruling out the idea of getting a doctorate, he said he is taking it “one step at a time.” 

“I am keeping it simple. One step at a time while learning something new every day and having as much fun as I can along the way,” he said. “I can sense that my efforts will pay off with a tremendous sense of accomplishment, simply because of the challenge level. It will feel like I achieved beyond my capabilities. None of it would be possible without the great support from my family – Nichole, Emi and Ryan – and mentors Dr. Kristofor Brye, Dr. Don Johnson and Dr. David Miller.” 

For more student success stories like Dietrich's, check out some of our previous #MyPathToSeniorWalk features: Erick SotoKennedy Hicks, Rachell Sanchez-SmithGary JacksonIsmael SalgadoAngel Williams, Michaela Parks and others at our #MyPathToSeniorWalk website. If you have a story that you'd like told or know someone who has an inspiring story, please check out the nomination form.

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