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Gaining altitude through education

Military studies student takes advantage of ASU-Navy partnership to promote himself through the ranks


ASU grad Merrill Magowan wearing his Navy uniform in front of a map and standing next to an American flag.
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November 16, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

Merrill Magowan works in and around the ocean, taking reports of maritime distress and coordinating responses to save lives. But ultimately, he wants to work in the air.

Magowan is a search-and-rescue controller in the United States Coast Guard but is taking steps to become an aviator. He knew he was missing one important thing to get there: education.

Arizona State University is helping Magowan to realize his dream. In 2021, ASU partnered with the United States Navy Community College (USNCC) to create an associate degree program in military studies for enlisted sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen.

Magowan, who is stationed in San Francisco, will graduate this month with an AA degree in military studies, and is the first graduate from the USNCC partnership. He said obtaining his degree is helpful to everyone in his sphere.

“Hopefully this (degree) will help me become a better service member,” said Magowan, who has a 3.88 cumulative GPA. “If I can become a better Coastie, maybe I might be able to better the Coast Guard.”

ASU News spoke to Magowan on the eve of his big day to find out how he intends to use his degree.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study military studies?

Answer: There wasn’t really an “aha” moment. I ended up in this program because I was opportunistic. I was looking to go back to college and weighing my options between different schools and degree paths when there was a solicitation for the United States Naval Community College’s Pilot II program. At the time, I had started working on a submission to an essay contest in the United States Naval Institute’s "Proceedings," which I focused on the education of enlisted military members, and specifically had some focus on the USNCC. It was quite fortuitous that right as I was researching the USNCC, an opportunity to be one of their pilot students emerged.

Before I joined the Coast Guard, I had been studying mechanical engineering, so it was quite a switch to military studies, but I knew that the knowledge I would learn would be helpful in my career in the Coast Guard. I am also glad for the opportunity to be one of the first groups of students to attend the USNCC, and I am glad that the USNCC is continuing to grow and offer more and more opportunities to military members. Education has played a vital role in my growth in the Coast Guard, so I appreciate the opportunity I received to attend the USNCC and subsequently ASU.

Q: What’s something significant you learned while at ASU?

A: While I’ve learned a lot at ASU, some things stand out more than others. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is really a skill set. I’ve learned how to use a new lens to look back at our history to understand where we are today. In the classes I took through the USNCC, I learned to apply this to the military, and at ASU I learned to apply it much more. In political science classes, I learned to apply this to a much wider range of topics. Ultimately, ASU helped me to hone my skills to understand the world we live in.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: I think before ASU and the USNCC, I had some critical views of school, namely that I thought there was a lot of things you study in school that really only exist in academia. Going through ASU, I have learned that this is far from the truth, and that everything you learn can have real-world implications on your path going forward, and it comes down to what you do with the information you learn. With that, my advice would be to learn to apply what you learn to your life outside of school.

That might mean different things to different people, but I think the takeaway should be that school isn’t a means to an end. People shouldn’t be in school just for the degree, but rather to improve their ability to understand the world around them, to improve themselves as a person. Cherish the time in school and put the effort in to make what you learn have lifelong impacts.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus?

A: I’m an online student, so I have to say my couch. It’s also very nice to have my cats on my lap to help me with my studies.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Since I am graduating with an associate degree, I will begin taking classes for my bachelor’s degree in public policy and public service with a focus on emergency management and homeland security. I have also been selected to attend Officer Candidate School, so I will be attending that this upcoming summer and commissioning in the Coast Guard. That has been a goal of mine for years, and ASU has played a vital role in achieving that goal.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I have a soft spot for animals, so I would work to improve the conditions and adoption rates for animals in animal shelters. Many animal shelters struggle financially, and $40 million would go a long way to improve the ability for these shelters to care for their animals. While there may be more pressing problems that our world is facing, so many of them are self-inflicted by humanity, like the issues facing our environment. But animals have always been innocent, and so many of them do not receive the care they need.

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