After long road, vet set to graduate from PSU York

Christopher Dornblaser
Veteran Leroy Watkins studies for his last final exam before graduation from Penn State York, Thursday, May 5, 2016.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Before LeRoy Watkins' brother died of cancer in 2011, he asked Watkins do two things: Move out of Enid, Oklahoma, and graduate from college.

In July 2014, Watkins, 40, fulfilled one of those wishes by moving to Jackson Township, and on Friday he will be fulfilling the second wish as he joins his Penn State York classmates at commencement, ending his more than 20-year journey to receive his bachelor's degree.

The journey: Watkins began going to school in 1994 at Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma.

"I was in college for a semester and life started happening," he said.

He said he got caught up in running a restaurant and eventually went into the military in 1998, starting in the National Guard and then moving onto the Army. Watkins was deployed four times, once to Iraq, once to Afghanistan, once to Kuwait and once in the U.S. at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. He medically retired in July 2013.

During his time served, Watkins suffered brain injuries, and many doctors told him that pursuing a degree would not be advisable.

Not one to settle, Watkins pursued his degree in spite of the doctor's warnings. In May 2014 he got his associate's degree from Northern Oklahoma College, and he and his family moved to Jackson Township after they were given a mortgage-free house from the Military Warrior Support Foundation.

He lives there with his wife, Angie, and his children Tabor, 13, and Teagan, 11.

In August 2014, Watkins started at Penn State York to pursue a bachelor's degree in business.

Veteran Leroy Watkins studies for his last final exam before graduation from Penn State York, Thursday, May 5, 2016.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Penn State York: When Watkins arrived in York, he start applying to colleges in the area. While he applied to other places, he really wanted to go to Penn State because of its reputation.

“Once I got the acceptance from the Penn State York campus, I let everything else sort of go,” he said.

He started with a normal course load of about 15 credits per semester in his first year, but in his final year he increased to about 19 credits per semester.

“I wanted to get it over with, and I also wanted to step up the challenge as well,” he said.

His brain injuries caused problems with his classes, and he had to take his exams outside of the classroom to help him concentrate. He also said he would often have trouble with his homework the day after doing it.

“I don't remember ever doing it, which makes its very difficult to go into a test,” he said.

Watkins said he had the hardest time focusing on math because it wasn't as familiar to him.

“It’s easier for me with the business classes, because that is stuff that I can sort of relate to with things in my life … it’s part of my brain that’s not injured,” he said.

Help: He credited the faculty and school for being so helpful to him during his studies.

“All of them are genuinely concerned about making sure that everybody is ready and knows what to expect in the workforce,” Watkins said.

Watkins specifically mentioned Cora Dzubach, director of the Nittany Success Center at Penn State York, as someone who helped him through school. He said she helped set him up with tutors and was responsive to his educational needs.

Dzubach called Watkins persistent.

“As a military guy, he knows what the goal is and what the end product needs to be,” she said.

What's next?: Watkins said after he graduates he wants to complete a degree in criminal justice.

Before he does that, he said, he will take a semester off to start a nonprofit organization aimed at helping servicemen and servicewomen translate their resumes for civilian employers.

Watkins said he and his family are also considering moving back to Oklahoma, where his wife's family lives.

In addition to that, he said he would like to pursue his master's in business.

Commencement: The Penn State York commencement ceremony will take place at 6 p.m. Friday at the Pullo Family Performing Arts Center. The commencement speaker will be Michael F. Allen, the executive vice president of business development at Harford Bank in Aberdeen, Maryland.

— Reach Christopher Dornblaser or on Twitter at@YDDornblaser

Michael F. Allen