Graduation stories: Veterans Chris and Amber Rea find right fit at Emporia State

May 12, 2011

Like many new high school graduates, Amber Orton Rea took the opportunity to move away and see more of the world. The Emporian enrolled at Kansas State University and joined the U.S. Army Reserves to help pay for her education.

It was August of 2000.

Now, after two deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, the 27-year-old is prepared to walk across the Emporia State University stage on Saturday to receive a bachelor’s degree from her hometown university. Also walking is Chris Rea, Amber’s 30-year-old husband, who will be picking up his master’s degree.

The couple met in Manhattan. Both were college students serving in the same Army Reserve unit based in Manhattan. Amber deployed to Afghanistan in February 2003. Both Chris and Amber deployed to Iraq for 18 months beginning in 2006.

It was during that deployment that the couple, by then married, decided to transfer to Emporia State.

“I knew the college here was a really good school,” Amber said, “and Kansas State tuition was going up.”

Add in the support of family and the decision seems simple. The logistics, however, could have been daunting.

Chris and Amber arrived in Emporia from Iraq just 13 days before the start of the Fall 2007 semester. They had spent the last weeks of their deployment making overseas phone calls — set up for specific times that worked for both ESU staff and the Reas in Iraq — and sending emails to coordinate everything they would need to register and enroll at Emporia State.

Once released from their military duties, the couple came to the Emporia campus for a meeting with an admissions counselor, who talked to them about their programs, offered to take them on a campus tour and to meetings with their department faculty, basically anything they needed.

At the end of the day, Amber recalls, “we said, ‘This is going to be a great experience for both of us.’”

Chris finished his bachelor’s degree in psychology at ESU. He’ll receive his master’s degree in clinical psychology on Saturday. In the fall, he’ll start classes at The University of Kansas for his doctorate in counseling psychology.

Amber, meanwhile, took a little longer to find her passion. Originally a broadcast journalism major, she switched to nursing when she transferred to ESU, but quickly realized that wasn’t a good fit.

Once she moved to elementary education, she knew she’d found her niche. While Chris pursues his doctorate, Amber plans to earn her master’s degree in special education from ESU.

Both have seen the influence of their military service on their career decisions. Chris eventually wants to work with veterans.

“I’m more aware,” he said. “Being overseas, seeing people in the unit with mental health problems, stress, anxiety. … My experience and knowledge is probably more important and valuable.”

He’s already applied for a practicum at the VA hospital in Topeka. When he visited, he saw a waiting room filled with Vietnam veterans.

“I’ll be coming into my career when lots of people are just coming home,” he said, noting that he expects to spend four years getting his doctorate.

Amber also has brought her experience into her career. She did her student teaching in a fourth-grade classroom filled with students born in 2001.

“They would ask, ‘Mrs. Rea, what is September 11?’”

Amber found herself able to educate beyond what was in textbooks, bringing in photos of her military post in Iraq so they could see the tents and how soldiers lived. Her deployment also gave her more of a global perspective.

“When you see how bad things can be and see how they live,” she said, “ it makes you realize even the worse-case scenario of students here is not as bad.”

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