Afghanistan-bound Army lieutenant misses his Brenau graduation

1st Lt. Frank Abrahamsen finishes degree with top honors

Frank Abrahamsen graduated summa cum laude from Brenau University. But instead of donning the black cap and gown and picking up his diploma at commencement exercises here on Saturday, May 5, he pulled on the camouflage uniform of a U.S. Army officer preparing for deployment to Afghanistan.

Abrahamsen, who lives in McDonough, Ga., will serve in an engineering company in the warzone that does the dangerous job of ‘route clearance’ — finding and removing mines and other explosive devices.

1st Lt. Abrahamsen, 43, a member of the Florida Army National Guard, reported May 1 at Camp Blanding near Jacksonville, Fla., for active duty with the 870th Engineer Company (Sappers). The combat engineer and his unit will be assigned somewhere in the war zone later this summer.

Abrahamsen says he wishes his wife, Elizabeth, and children Billy, 20, Bay, 15, and Autumn, 10, could have seen him walk across the stage Saturday at the Georgia Mountains Center in Gainesville. However, he added, “They see the accomplishment.”

So do his Brenau instructors and advisers. In his pursuit of a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice he made all A’s – except for B’s in two courses, English and statistics.

“It’s been a journey,” said Abrahamsen, who lives in McDonough.

The lieutenant came late to both college and the Army. He joined the Army at age 35, just ahead of the top age cutoff for enlistment. While he juggled family, a job and one other overseas deployment, he took courses online one at a time.

“I’ve actually never met Frank in person,” said Dr. Heather Hartman, his adviser at Brenau for six years. “But, when I saw the posting of his final credits for graduation and was typing him a congratulatory e-mail, the phone rang. Tears welled up in my eyes as Frank told me he’d finally made it.”

Abrahamsen grew up in Fort Walton, Beach, Fla., a military town, but went into the family retail business instead of following his friends into the armed forces.

“By the time 9/11 hit, I was feeling like all my friends were doing something important, and I didn’t feel like I was,” he said.

Abrahamsen wanted to emulate his father-in-law, a retired officer, and he thought, why not go to college as well? He started at for-profit Kaplan, but was limited in the number of classes he could take by the demands of Basic Training. He transferred to not-for-profit Brenau after moving to Georgia to work for National Building Contractors as a project manager.

“I needed something online because I work 50-60 hours a week and couldn’t go to a traditional school,” Abrahamsen said. “I asked around, and some people told me to look at Brenau.”

Abrahamsen first earned enough credits before age 37 to get into Officer Candidate School, and he was on a tight schedule. In his OCS class of 76, fewer than 30 graduated.

“I was lucky and worked hard,” said Abrahamsen, who also had to learn engineering in his officer’s training.

Abrahamsen will be in Afghanistan for nine months, where his company will do route clearance. Although he’s been deployed to Germany, this is his first combat tour. “Obviously, it’s a dangerous job, but I work with a great group of soldiers. Everybody’s trained well and we have good equipment,” Abrahamsen said.

He expects to be promoted to captain, and hopes to rise to major or lieutenant colonel. Having a master’s degree would make him more competitive, and he is interested in pursuing graduate studies in public administration.

For Abrahamsen, the Brenau experience was positive. “It’s a great college,” said Abrahamsen. One of the great features from the military perspective is the university’s tuition assistance, which he described as “kind of like a GI Bill.”

In the spring term, Brenau enrolled about 175 students in the military – on active duty or in the reserves – or members of their families. The university, regarded as one of the most military-friendly higher education institutions in the country, offers a deeply discounted online tuition rate, about 50 percent, for students in on active duty in the military and their dependents, veterans, military retirees, members of the national Guard or military reserve unites, and civilian employee on military bases near Augusta and Kings Bay, Ga., where Brenau has campuses, and their dependents.

Rosanne Short, Brenau’s director of nonresidential programs and support services in Gainesville, said professors generally love to have military people in their classes because “they’re disciplined, dedicated and focused.” The faculty members, she added, also take special pains to work with the students online because they may be in another state or on another continent, sometimes in war zones or training facilities, with very erratic schedules and limited internet access.

“The instructors were flexible and understanding,’ Abrahamsen said. “There would be times when I’d be training or be in the field and wouldn’t have access to a computer for three days, and they would give me a couple of days extra time to make up assignments.”

“Don’t let me sound like it was an easy task. It wasn’t. But whatever I have to do, I’ve got a way of doing it. As long as you have a goal, you just have to knuckle down and apply yourself.”

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