College gives Navy vet a new lease on life

By MARY KOPPY/Montana State News

Eight years ago, Angie Ford meant to stay in the Navy for life; the Navy had other ideas.

Ford, a veteran and non-traditional student at MSU, planned on remaining in the armed services for good when she joined the Navy in San Diego, Calif., in July 2004.

“I wanted to be an officer,” she said recently in an interview. “I wanted to fly.”

But the Navy was downsizing by the time Ford served in Hawaii on her last base and she could not reapply. She had recently divorced her husband and become a single mother with two children, both younger than three.

“I just woke up one morning and I was just sick of it,” Ford said. “And I asked myself ‘if you weren’t scared of anything, if you weren’t scared of failing, what would you do?’”

She would move to Montana and own a horse, Ford decided, so she packed up and moved north to chase her dream. For Ford, following her heart has led her to a satisfying, busy life, where she excels in a field that allows her to be, first and foremost, herself.

She started out at Montana State University as an equine science major and received a horse from the husband of her daughter’s teacher.

“The teacher knew I was an equine science major, and her husband trained horses and they had some they needed to get rid of,” Ford said. “She asked me if I could afford to keep a horse if she gave me one, and I said I would find a way to make it happen.”

Ford boards her mare near Three Forks, and the distance makes riding regularly nearly impossible.

As an equine science major, Ford remained in her first major until she reached her writing core. The first-year college writing class she enrolled in was a “Writing on Writing” course and a unique opportunity for her. The class became a turning point in her post-secondary education.

Ford said she was nervous about writing and intimidated by the prospect of teachers and students not liking what she wrote, but the class alleviated some of her concerns.

“My teacher liked my writing and very politely asked me what I was doing as an equine science major,” Ford said.

Ford changed her major shortly after and plans to teach college writing after finishing grad school. She wants to focus particularly on rhetoric and composition.

“It’s the first time in my life I’ve been sure I’m in the right field,” Ford said of her education and career goals.

She said the first-year college writing class drew her to the major in particular because of its unique structure. The class encouraged writing about writing itself, rather than other, more generic topics.

It is the unique ability to create and resolve questions that draws Ford to rhetoric and writing.

“My first writing class let me take a stance of inquiry for the first time and that has kind of become a buzzword for me and for my life,” she said.

Ford said that it was returning to college that has made her realize that asking questions is one of the best ways she learns.

“I was raised in a strict, religious household and then I became a firefighter and then I joined the Navy,” Ford said. “None of those lifestyles offer people in the lower levels the opportunity to question things. I feel like in every other thing in my life I was really driven to succeed, but it never worked. There were never people there who took the time to mentor me, but I’ve really found that here.”

Ford says that mentorship started with her professors and their dedication to helping her succeed on her terms, but quickly grew to encompass a community of students, teachers, tutors and other vets.

Ford, a tutor in the writing center, uses her familiarity with language to contribute to the community environment.

“It is such a privilege to be here and spend all my time learning,” Ford said of her experiences as a non-traditional student at MSU. “It is so fun and so meaningful.”

Ford worked on a research project this last summer that culminated in her co-writing a book chapter on the ways veterans learn in classes. She used experiences of her own and those she gathered in interviews with other vets to complete her project, but found very little outside information.

“I discovered that there was no prior research on this topic,” Ford said. “There was research on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and how vets acclimated to returning from war, but nothing on how it affected their learning and research styles.”

From her research, Ford discovered that she looks for excellence in her daily life, but found that she was searching for military excellence in a civilian lifestyle.

“Military excellence is very different from inquiry-driven excellence,” Ford said.

Returning to school from a military life has caused Ford to reconstruct her entire life. She continually analyzes her responses to any scenario and asks herself where the response is coming from – her military training or her stance of inquiry.

Some aspects of being both a non-traditional student and veteran grate on Ford.

“I feel like I have a very hard time dealing with students who complain about inconveniences related to school,” Ford said. “It’s nothing compared to leading a military life. This is the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”

Ford added that another oddity for her is the novelty of returning to an environment where people are still very sensitive to large or dramatic occurrences. Some things Ford has become desensitized to create large, emotional ripples through her class, particularly acts of violence or natural disasters.

Ford says that to an extent, this split has affected her writing as well.

“I think twice before I put something down, when my classmates mostly jump right into an assignment,” Ford said. “I have to take into account how differently people might react to my stories.”

Ford adds that the university system feels at times like it was set up for a population much younger than many non-traditional students. “I am a student,” she said, “but I am not a kid. Sometimes I feel like this system is set up for kids.”

It bothers her, she said, because sometimes she feels like her professors treat her as though she were much younger than she is and as though she had not worked in a career position and raised a family.

Despite the challenge of returning to school full time with two small children and a tutoring job, Ford values the learning-oriented setting she has returned to and feels confident that she is in the right major at the right university.

“I was always trying to change myself to be successful in other fields, but here it was just an accident. I’m just being me, but being me fits.”

Edited by Sam Brown.

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