“I am the nontraditional student,” said 25-year-old Nick Carlson by way of introduction. “That has summed up a lot of my life.” Indeed, he might be the nontraditional among nontraditionals and, consequently, gives back to his state and country in uncommon ways and at unexpected intervals.
Carlson enrolled at University Campus in Fall 2015, already married, an officer in the Florida Army National Guard, and equipped with a four-year degree in business. He came with the dream of eventually becoming a rural physician—a path he had earlier rejected as taking too long, especially for a restless young fellow. “God helped me understand my calling for medicine. I’m going the long way around.”
Saint Leo offered Carlson welcome and entry into the rigorous science courses needed for medical school admission. He registered for first-level biology, chemistry, and physics, plus their respective lab courses, all at once. And he was determined to excel.
His first discovery: “There is a way to be a student, there’s a way to be a science student, and there is a way to be a scientist.” It took him about a month to make the required mental shift, and he credits the science faculty for mentoring him whenever needed.
And he delighted in his next discovery: that synergies exist among biology, chemistry, and physics, synergies that are apparent when you plunge into all of them. “I never knew physics could be so awesome,” he told his wife, Heather. The A student eagerly followed through with the second-level biology, chemistry, and physics courses.
By Fall Semester 2016, Carlson had taken on part-time employment as a tutor. He also dived into the first level of organic chemistry, a notoriously difficult subject. He managed his time during the first weeks so he was a bit ahead.
Then Hurricane Matthew formed and swirled furiously along the east coast of Florida during the first week of October, leaving floods, damage, power outages, and stressed communities. Carlson was deployed as an officer of the Florida Army National Guard. It was his first call to action for storm duty and a chance to serve his home state.
Carlson went with a logistics unit to a big operations site in Orlando. His job for two solid weeks was to use his military operations and leadership skills to keep track of soldiers, trucks, bottled water, supplies, and food, and to get everything and everybody to the right places at the right times. He was equipping the Guardsmen who were assisting civilians. The days were repetitive, and 14 or 15 hours long. When he got home, it was time to turn around for two days of regular drill training in St. Augustine.
Yet, all that was manageable. The challenge was maintaining his A in organic chemistry without being able to go to class. “Dr. [Brian] Kyte and I communicated by email,” as Carlson continued reading the text and working on study questions during his downtime. By the end of the semester, Carlson’s grade dropped by a few points, perhaps five, and he was satisfied with that.
That’s not to say that Carlson would necessarily want to try something like that again, say with the organic chemistry and biochemistry courses he still needs. Ironically, the next choice he faced involved a similar predicament.
Carlson got word that his financial management unit is likely to be deployed overseas during 2018, and that there were command roles that would have to be filled.
“I felt called to take the position. I had the leadership skills and the training so that I could lead these soldiers, and I would be one of the best choices to accomplish the mission and get everyone back alive.”
The responsibility also involves spending much of 2017 on pre-deployment work, getting to know the soldiers under his command, and spending time with his family while he is still in the States. As for school, he and his wife concluded that his remaining pre-med studies would have to wait until he fulfills his military mission.
Though he considers himself impatient by nature, Carlson says he is at peace with the delay in his nontraditional timetable. “In 2019, I will be back here, taking classes.”